Ceisteanna - Questions

Cabinet Committees

Mick Barry

Question:

1. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the Cabinet committee dealing with education. [1594/21]

Alan Kelly

Question:

2. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on education last met; and when it will next meet. [14480/21]

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

3. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on education will next meet. [15523/21]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

4. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the Cabinet committee dealing with education. [15559/21]

Paul Murphy

Question:

5. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on education last met; and when it will next meet. [16823/21]

Mick Barry

Question:

6. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the Cabinet committee dealing with education. [17192/21]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 6, inclusive, together.

The Cabinet committee on education oversees implementation of the programme for Government commitments in the area of education, including preparing for post-Covid education. This Cabinet committee last met on 17 February and will meet again shortly. I have regular engagement with the Minister for Education and the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science at Cabinet and individually to discuss priorities for the education sector, especially the management of the impacts of Covid on primary, secondary and third level education. Similarly, I also have regular engagement with the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth on priority issues relating to early years education and childcare.

Does the Taoiseach think it was a good idea to break a commitment to teachers about vaccinations less than two weeks before the full reopening of schools? Does his breach of trust put the full reopening of schools in any kind of jeopardy? Will he send teachers and students back into the schools on 12 April if the reproduction number remains above one or will he do it if the reproduction number rises above 1.5? Fifth year students will have missed 14 weeks of classroom teaching time by 12 April. These students will have lost more classroom teaching time than any other leaving certificate cohort in the history of the State bar one. The leaving certificate should be abolished and a policy of open access to third level education should be introduced. What changes is the Taoiseach prepared to make to take into account the substantial loss of classroom teaching time that these students have suffered?

When it comes to special education, the decision by the Department of Education to freeze current special education teacher levels at this year's level will mean that education in developing schools that are expanding will see a reduction in support. This is not fair. It will leave vulnerable children without vital supports for a prolonged period. School patrons have already raised this with the Minister. There are also problems with HSE school-age support services. We saw the case of seven-year-old Lexi Forde, whom the Taoiseach is aware of, on Monday night. Her parents were told she would be seen in November 2026.

Was the decision to restrict supports for this cohort of vulnerable school children discussed at the Cabinet committee? What will be done to address it?

Furthermore, the issues that have been raised in relation to the Beacon Hospital and the vaccination of private school staff has brought to the fore once again the two-tier system that is perceived to exist in respect of education. Looking at the figures of students who go from private schools to third level education in comparison with those who go from DEIS schools to third level, there is a huge differential. If we have learned anything from Covid being the biggest disrupter, it is that it is time for a single-tier approach to both education and healthcare in this country. What moves will be made in the education sector in order to deliver that?

In July last year, my colleague, Deputy Quinlivan, was told by the Taoiseach that he hoped to give a timeline for the rolling out of a new redress scheme for the victims of historical abuse in day schools. I am sure, or at least I hope, that the Taoiseach is as frustrated as I am that the Department of Education's review of the ex gratia scheme appears to be stalled. That frustration is nothing by comparison with the deepened hurt and anger felt by the survivors of Creagh Lane National School at the lack of progress made by the current and former Governments on this matter.

At every stage of this sorry saga, the State has actively sought to evade its responsibility. The Taoiseach was right in describing the previous Government's treatment of the victims as shameful, cynical and cruel. Mr. Justice O'Neill described the preconditions set for victims to access the scheme as an "inversion of logic" and fundamentally unfair. July 2021 will mark two years since the former Taoiseach apologised to the survivors. Yet, these men of Creagh Lane and so many others who were wrongfully excluded from applying to the scheme, continue to be left out in the cold.

Officials in the Department have been reviewing the scheme for 18 months now. At no stage have they, or Government past or present, given a clear indication as to when this review will be completed. I would like to know, in a direct answer, when the Department will conclude its review and when the Government will amend and reopen the scheme for those who have been excluded from it to date.

Before I came in here, I spoke to the principal of a DEIS band 1 school in my area, Scoil Cholmcille, which was one of 281 schools that applied for the new hot school meals programme. The school was most disappointed not to have been selected for the programme. It is in a highly disadvantaged area. It seems that quite a few non-DEIS schools were approved for the hot school meals programme, but not schools in areas of extreme disadvantage which, let us be clear, have been hit very significantly by, and have felt the impact more acutely of, school closures due to Covid, and so on. The school principal reported that hot school meal pilot programmes run by the school made a huge difference to attendance and the ability of children to focus. Yet, such schools have been denied access to the programme.

For the sake of 90 schools, could the Government not come up with the money to give all the schools that applied access to the hot school meals programme? The principal I spoke to told me that the additional cost of the programme would be 80 cent per student. He also reported to me an answer from the Department that €5 million is unspent in the school meals programme. In other words, it is likely that a fraction of that unspent money would actually allow those 90 schools that were refused access to the programme to get it. I ask the Taoiseach to do something about it.

In countries that followed a zero Covid strategy, the schools were largely able to stay open after the first lockdown. The same could have been done here last summer, but instead the Government decided on a yo-yo lockdown strategy that has seen schools having to close repeatedly.

There is hope and the target of opening schools fully again, but with case numbers so high and the risk of a fourth wave that is underlined by NPHET, there are serious doubts and concerns. In the next ten days before schools are due to reopen, we need to bring down the case numbers and provide the investment to make schools safe. Instead, the Government is making decisions which jeopardise that possibility.

One year on, the Government has still not put in the investment to ventilate our schools properly. Instead, it promised teachers that they would be prioritised for the vaccine, but that has now been taken off the table. It has still not tackled the Covid outbreaks in the meat plants and the actions of private companies unnecessarily forcing workers to come into the workplace when they could safely work from home. It has gone against the NPHET advice by bowing, once more, to private business lobbying and agreeing to reopen construction and it has not implemented the 14-day backward contact tracing that is necessary.

Will these things be put in place in the next ten days so that schools are able to reopen safely?

I would like to raise two issues briefly.

I wish to remind the Taoiseach, with the restructuring of the vaccination programme, of the importance of the July provision programme. I also wish to acknowledge that many of the educators who take part in the July provision programme are younger educators who are seeking to supplement their income. They will need to be vaccinated. While I appreciate that there has been a change in the rationale for the vaccination programme, I ask that it be ensured that educators taking part in the July provision are prioritised so that important programme can take place.

I also want to highlight that students who have not been able to return to school because they have a family member with an underlying health condition still do not have access to remote learning options. I strongly encourage the Taoiseach to prioritise both of those cohorts in terms of creating remote learning options for students who cannot return to school and prioritising the educators who take part in the July provision scheme as part of the vaccine programme.

In the last 24 hours, the Government has changed from a risk-based vaccine distribution system to an age-based vaccine distribution system. Last week it said that the vaccination system was based on public health advice. This week it has stated that it is based on public health advice, even though they are mutually exclusive systems.

Now, a 46-year-old who is working remotely will be vaccinated on the same day as a special needs assistant, SNA, who is working with children with special needs, as a garda who is arresting people in a riot, as a carer on whom a person depends completely and as a teacher.

It is important to be honest here. There reason is because the system that was in place previously was based on GP and consultant lists. As a result, many people were slipping through the cracks. There are people with stage 4 cancer who have been bounced back and forth from GPs to consultants and have been unable to get the vaccine.

The reason that lists were used is because there is no central patient database in the country. Even though the Government had six months to organise a central database, the Government did not get it together. It is incredible to hear. Last week, the Government said that one of the biggest risks in respect of Covid is people's actions and their mobility. Now it is saying that is not the case, and the biggest risk is age. It is saying that people's professions, i.e. their mobility and actions, are no longer a sufficient reason for them to be prioritised.

First, in terms of the issues raised by Deputy Kelly in relation to special education, I will have the issue of developing schools and special needs provision looked at again, to ensure that there is an adequacy of provision for children in that context.

On the issue around the Beacon Hospital, what happened there was a fundamental breach of trust in the administration of vaccines. It was wrong and against the prioritisation that had been laid down, that the most vulnerable should get the vaccines first.

In our democracy and within our constitutional framework, people have entitlements to pursue the education that they wish to pursue. We must make sure and ensure this happens, as we do, particularly at primary level. We are much stronger at primary level in terms of the single-tier approach in respect of the provision of education - not so at post-primary. It is more regionally spread as well. Dublin is particularly strong in terms of private education as opposed to State-based education.

There is a higher concentration in Dublin. Overall, our second level system has achieved a lot relative to our European peers in terms of school completion. I favour stronger resources going into DEIS schools and into the area around school completion and attendance to make sure we can assist in every way we possibly can school completion by students, which would enable them to progress further and get greater opportunities in life more generally.

Deputy McDonald raised the redress scheme for survivors. I am very keen to see the review into the scheme concluded. I do not have a date for that right now but I certainly will revert back to the House on it at a later stage. I have pursued this issue both in opposition and in government. We have made progress as a result of some of the efforts we made and that I was involved in, but some people are still excluded, as has been noted, particularly the survivors of Creagh Lane National School.

Deputy Boyd Barrett raised an issue regarding the hot meals programme. It is a good programme, the objectives of which are to be commended. I will examine the situation he has raised. I take it he is talking about 90 schools in DEIS band 1 that are apparently not eligible. I will get answers in that respect from the Minister involved and revert to the Deputy.

The scheme costs very little.

Deputy Paul Murphy raised a number of points. The NPHET recommendations we have adopted are, in effect, to have a very slow, steady and safe reopening and to give people some relief in respect of, for example, the 5 km restriction and other matters. We have dealt with outbreaks in meat plants. From the Deputy's political perspective, he can identify meat plants as the great evil. As far as we are concerned, they have been dealt with and there is antigen testing and serial testing in place. There is also support for workers in terms of illness pay and so on.

Regarding bringing down case numbers, that is an objective in terms of schools returning. No one expected vaccinations before 12 April. Let us all be honest in this House and not suggest that people had an expectation there would be vaccinations beyond the over-70s and the cohorts with underlying conditions. The target is to get all over-70s and the underlying condition cohorts given a first dose by mid-April and to have them all fully vaccinated by mid to late May. We are leaving nobody behind in the vaccination programme.

In respect of the points raised by Deputy Tóibín, it is not a case of moving from risk to age. Age is risk; that is the point. We can play with language but the reason the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, has decided on age, having looked at the reviews, is that it does not determine huge differences between occupational categories but it does unequivocally say that the international evidence is now clear that the older one is, the more vulnerable one is to severe illness and death if one gets Covid. There is no contradiction, as the Deputy asserted, between the behavioural issues and how one avoids getting Covid in the first instance.

On the issue raised by Deputy Barry, I again make the point that there was no expectation that people would be vaccinated before 12 April. It is wrong to suggest there was. We are not breaking any commitments in respect of the full reopening of schools on 12 April. Deputy Gannon made a fair point that before the next academic year, which is probably the more relevant timeframe, we should do everything we possibly can to ensure we have the bulk of our vaccination programme completed. I am confident of achieving that. In response to Deputy Gannon's other point, age is now the determining criterion governing the allocation of the vaccine, as I said.

Cabinet Committees

Mick Barry

Question:

7. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the meeting of the Cabinet committee on Covid-19. [1593/21]

Alan Kelly

Question:

8. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Covid-19 last met; and when it next plans to meet. [13095/21]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

9. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Covid-19 will next meet. [13268/21]

Bríd Smith

Question:

10. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Covid-19 will next meet. [13271/21]

Paul Murphy

Question:

11. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Covid-19 will next meet. [13274/21]

Mick Barry

Question:

12. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the Cabinet committee on Covid-19. [13300/21]

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

13. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Covid-19 will next meet. [15524/21]

Paul Murphy

Question:

14. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Covid-19 last met; and when it next plans to meet. [16824/21]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 7 to 14, inclusive, together.

The Cabinet committee on Covid-19 was re-established by the Government on 29 June 2020 to continue to assess the social and economic impacts of the potential spread of Covid-19 and oversee the cross-Government response. The committee met this week on Monday, 29 March. The date of the next meeting has not yet been set.

On 23 February, the revised plan for managing the virus, Covid-19 Resilience and Recovery 2021 - The Path Ahead, was published. The plan sets out our approach to the next phase on our path forward. The objectives of the revised plan are to make steady progress, starting with childcare and schools, while avoiding a further wave of disease or reimposition of restrictions, protect the most vulnerable by an efficient roll-out of the vaccination programme, remain vigilant and agile regarding the uncertainties in the face of new variants, capitalise on emerging evidence on available vaccines, and lay the foundations for the full recovery of social life, public services and the economy.

Any easing of measures should be slow and gradual, with sufficient time between phases to assess their impact and respond if the epidemiological situation were to deteriorate. We will take account of emerging international and national evidence and experience and have a specific focus on supporting mental health and well-being. In-school education and childcare services recommenced in a phased manner from 1 March, with the staggered return throughout March to be concluded after the Easter break on 12 April.

Yesterday, the Government agreed further easing of measures, including, from 12 April, allowing two households to meet up with one another outdoors for social and recreational purposes. This does not include private gardens. Any meetings outdoors should be done safely, with continued practising of social distancing and other safe behaviours. Masks should be worn in crowded outdoor places. Travel restrictions will be relaxed to enable travel within one's own county or within 20 km of residence if crossing county boundaries. The message is moving from stay at home to stay local.

From 19 April, there will be an expansion of elite sports activity, to include training for, and playing of, national governing body-sanctioned and organised adult intercounty national GAA league games, not including under-20s and minor competitions, and activities by certain high-performing athletes, as approved by Sport Ireland, in a range of sports.

Subject to the prevailing disease situation, from 26 April, outdoor sports facilities can reopen, including pitches, golf courses, tennis courts and other facilities, as appropriate. Activities should take place between a maximum of two households and there should not be any return to team sports or training activities. Outdoor visitor attractions can reopen, including open pet farms, heritage sites and zoos. This does not include amusement parks. Indoor areas should remain closed and hospitality should only be open for takeaway services.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

Robust protective measures, including appropriate capacity limits, should be in place. Underage non-contact outdoor training in pods of 15 can recommence, with strict protocols. Also from 26 April, maximum attendance at funerals will increase to 25 on compassionate grounds. Linked gatherings should not take place before or after funeral services.

Regarding construction, from 12 April, all residential construction projects can recommence. Early learning childcare and school-aged childcare services will be added to the list of essential services for construction activity.

For those fully vaccinated, current guidance for vulnerable persons will be aligned to that of the general population, which means there will be no requirement to cocoon. Those who are fully vaccinated may visit other fully vaccinated people, from one other household only, indoors from two weeks after second dose.

Subject to the prevailing disease situation, areas for consideration in the next phase, after 4 May, include a full reopening of construction activity, a phased return of non-essential retail, commencing with click-and-collect and outdoor retail, such as garden centres and nurseries, recommencement of personal services on a staggered basis, reopening of museums, galleries and libraries, and recommencement of religious services on a staggered basis.

Many of the level 5 public health measures are premised on the need to reduce congregation and interactions between people in order to reduce transmission. Therefore, everyone is being asked to stay local and comply with all public health measures. We continue to have an unacceptably high level of disease in the community. It is imperative that we continue to suppress the disease over the coming period.

The Beacon Hospital gave vaccines to staff of the private school attended by the children of its CEO. The hospital gave the jab to staff of Park Academy crèches and the CEO of the VHI. The Irish Daily Mail reports that at least one other senior manager with no clinical role at the VHI was contacted by the Beacon Hospital and offered a Covid-19 jab at the start of March. I am told there is a 1990s revival going on at the moment. Certainly, it seems that the golden circle of that decade has not gone away. It used to be about contracts and money, and ordinary people suffered as a result. Now it seems to be about life and death, and ordinary people may get sick or even die as a result of this kind of carry-on.

I agree with the statement by the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, that private health facilities should be brought into public ownership. The case for that has been strengthened by the events of recent days. How can the Taoiseach oppose that proposal in the light of recent events?

Will the Taoiseach confirm to the House that children's shoes will be added to the essential retail list? Given the time period of lockdown and retail being closed, everybody knows that this issue is causing serious problems for children in many families, particularly children of a very young age. I ask the Taoiseach to confirm that this issue will be addressed.

Antigen testing is finally being rolled out and I very much welcome it.

The Taoiseach knows I was the first to raise the question of those tests in the House well over six months ago. I do them regularly when going to and from Dublin. Why is the process taking so long and will the Taoiseach outline the process?

Why has the Government now decided to do PCR tests on arrival from airports? My colleague, Deputy Duncan Smith, has been raising this for six or seven months, so what has changed? Will the Taoiseach please inform the House the process by which decisions will be made to add countries to the mandatory hotel quarantine list? It is quite obvious the Minister for Health jumped the gun in announcing that the US and three or four countries from Europe would be included. If I say the Minister for Foreign Affairs was mildly annoyed by that, I am being polite. What is the process for making these decisions, as the current process certainly cannot be used in future?

I have just read the NPHET letter. It correctly states we are in a very fragile and precarious position, as a result, in my opinion, of the Government refusing to impose the mandatory quarantine that NPHET asked to be introduced. The Government still refuses to do it for a majority of countries. Whereas the vast majority of people adhered to public health guidelines, enduring immense hardship in doing that, the Government has allowed certain favoured sectors off the hook. As a result, we still have dangerously high levels of transmission of the virus, most notably with the beef plants and other non-essential sectors that clearly have the favoured ear of the Government.

Interestingly, NPHET does not mention construction in its letter or ask for the reopening of non-essential construction. Why has the Government done this, given the fragile position described by NPHET? Yet again, it seems another reckless move as the Government kowtows to the Construction Industry Federation, including Mr. Tom Parlon, and similar interests.

There are people who will continue to suffer economically and I have raised many times the grant supports that have been denied to taxi drivers. The Taoiseach often makes comparisons with the North, where taxi drivers are being given £3,000 to cover ongoing fixed costs. We have not given them a cent. Will the Taoiseach consider supporting our taxi drivers during this difficult time?

I ask about the vaccination programme. I listened carefully to the Government's announcement yesterday and again this morning when it was replayed during a radio interview. To put it mildly, the Government's plan to reopen the economy is almost 100% dependent on a successful roll-out of the vaccination programme. One could say that is fair enough because it is expected we will get a million vaccines in May, June and afterwards, so there shall be plenty of them in the country. Let us say that happens and there are no problems with distribution or imports. Will the Taoiseach clarify if we are sufficiently resourced in vaccinators, as this is where we could have a problem? I have a niece who is an unemployed midwife and who has offered to be a vaccinator. Ridiculous questions are asked by CPL, the outsourced recruitment company, including requests for the certificate for the BCG vaccine given to people when they were six. They also ask for the junior certificate and the long version of a birth certificate. These questions are obstacles being put in front of people trained as public nurses and doctors who want to be vaccinators. How in God's name are we going to vaccinate millions of people without plenty of vaccinators? Why are these obstacles being put ahead of people's health? Will the Taoiseach explain if he has faith in CPL to deliver the programme?

I may have skipped the queue as I believe Deputy Paul Murphy is next.

I crossed him out by mistake.

It is just to keep us right. I thank the Deputy. There is a move to age-based vaccination and the Taoiseach drew a parallel with the North. Sadly, I wish we were in the same position as those in the North, where vaccination is moving ahead at pace. Of course, the Taoiseach is aware there is an occupational element to that scheme. It is why, for example, carers got priority and have been vaccinated in the North. The occupational logic was applied in the correct decision to vaccinate healthcare workers - those on the front line - first. It was not age-related but decided according to occupations.

The Taoiseach has told us the national immunisation advisory committee has advised the Government that there is no occupational group at higher risk of disease or death from Covid-19. I invite the Government to publish that advice so we can scrutinise it. There is also the question of the shenanigans at the Beacon clinic, which is the latest instance we know of where the guidelines issued by the HSE were set to one side and an individual arbitrarily chose people to be vaccinated. Apart from the elitism, this demonstrates a lack of oversight and surveillance. We heard about the Beacon clinic case because of good journalism and somebody stepping forward, not because we have good oversight. What will the Taoiseach do to remedy this clear deficiency?

I apologise to Deputy Murphy.

There is no problem. My jaw almost hit the floor during the Taoiseach's response when he said the meat plants have been dealt with. Tell that to the six meat factory workers currently hospitalised with Covid-19. Tell that to the meat factory workers in the two plants that have been added to the list of outbreaks in the latest weekly statistics. There are now open outbreaks in 27 of 56 meat plants that have supposedly been dealt with. In towns with meat plants, such as Tullamore, the rates of incidence are five times the national average and the poor conditions of meat factory workers continue. For almost a year now, NPHET and People Before Profit have been calling for proper sick pay for these workers but 90% of them still do not have it. We will introduce a Bill tomorrow that would force the beef barons to provide sick pay for all meat factory workers. Will the Taoiseach support us in dealing with this matter, as opposed to ignoring it or pretending it has been dealt with?

I will go further than Deputy Boyd Barrett. Not only does NPHET not recommend the reopening of construction, it argues that it should not happen. After outlining its list of suggestions, it states "no further relaxation of measures should happen". The Government is again going away from NPHET advice in bowing to the lobbying of the Construction Industry Federation. Will the Taoiseach take responsibility if a disaster results?

Like everybody else, I want to see the country reopened. I understand the vaccine roll-out is key to that objective. I have been pushing for many months for a timely rolling out of vaccines. However, I oppose mandatory vaccinations. Encouragement has proven far more successful than browbeating people. I received a number of phone calls from students over the past number of days who have told me they are being forced to take the vaccine against their will. One woman called me and said she was under massive stress and she cannot sleep. She indicates she has been told that if she wants to finish the two weeks of placement she has left, she must take the vaccine. In other words, she must take the vaccine to continue her career. She says she is looking at Germany and Canada, two countries that have paused the roll-out of the AstraZeneca vaccine for her age cohort, and she cannot understand why the HSE is making it mandatory for students to take this vaccine to continue with a particular career. Will the Taoiseach guarantee these students will not be forced to take the vaccine?

In the statements yesterday, the Taoiseach mentioned that people who have been vaccinated can meet. I welcome that. How will that be policed or will it be policed? Will there be occasions where gardaí will attend people's houses and ask them to prove they have been vaccinated?

I thank the Deputies, who have raised a range of matters. Deputy Barry again raised questions relating to public and private hospitals.

We live in a country where people have choices. I support as strong and well-resourced a public health service as possible and will continue to do so. That is why record funding was provided this year to the HSE to develop, advance and expand the public health service system. That is my commitment to that.

I have condemned what happened at the Beacon. It was wrong in terms of personal ethics and behaviour and represented a gross breach of trust with the Irish people.

Deputy Kelly raised the issue of children's shoes, which the Government is examining. We take the point. There have been issues in terms of children's shoes being an essential item for the growth and development of children and the need to provide for that. We are finalising specific guidance. That will be published and outlined in regulations to facilitate shoe shops and shoe-fitting services to measure children and provide for them on appointment online or by phone call. The basis will be to provide that service and the subsequent sale of children's shoes only. It is specific to the needs of growing children and we will provide for that in guidance and regulations that will be published shortly. It is a fair point that Deputies and medical personnel have raised with us.

Antigen testing is being rolled out. A report has been compiled by Professor Mark Ferguson which is with the Minister. It is being rolled out in the private sector, as well as by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue; by the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, in the third level sector; and by the Tánaiste in respect of enterprise and the private sector more generally. It is available in meat plants. We have done serial testing in meat plants to keep the pressure on the virus.

On mandatory quarantine and the addition of countries, the process is clear. The Chief Medical Officer assesses the situation against a range of criteria provided for within the legislation enacted by the House. He sends a report to the Minister for Health who then has to consult with the Minister for Foreign Affairs for the countries to be announced and added.

On Deputy Boyd Barrett's questions, it is a fragile situation. In terms of construction, on another day Deputies Boyd Barrett and Paul Murphy will come into this House and rail about the state of homelessness and the housing crisis. We are allowing for residential construction and not kowtowing to anybody. It is Government policy to provide housing for people, to combat homelessness and so on. We have had no housing construction, essentially, since the beginning of the year. Some 14,000 workers are provided for, that is all. That is in the context of 1 million going back to school. That is the perspective and the balance. I ask the Deputies not to overstate it.

Cabinet Committees

Alan Kelly

Question:

15. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on health last met; and when it next plans to meet. [13096/21]

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

16. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on health will next meet. [13102/21]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

17. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on health last met; and when it next plans to meet. [15560/21]

Paul Murphy

Question:

18. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on health last met; and when it next plans to meet. [16825/21]

Mick Barry

Question:

19. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on health last met; and when it next plans to meet. [17191/21]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 15 to 19, inclusive, together.

The Cabinet committee on health oversees implementation of programme for Government commitments in relation to health, receives detailed reports on identified policy areas and considers the implementation of health reforms, including Sláintecare. The Cabinet committee last met on Monday, 14 December and will meet again shortly. In addition to the meetings of the full Cabinet and of Cabinet committees, I meet Ministers on an individual basis to focus on different issues. I meet the Minister for Health regularly to discuss priorities in the area of health and in particular our management of and response to Covid-19.

The pandemic has led to unprecedented interruption to normal healthcare activity in both acute and community settings. Since the outset of the pandemic, patients and services have been clinically prioritised and the HSE has ensured that time-critical services, along with many routine services, have been protected, meaning that people who need it currently have had access to the services.

To ensure services are restored in a clinically prioritised manner, last week the HSE published a plan for restoring health and social care services in a Covid-19 environment, entitled A Safe Return to Health Services. This plan provides an operational framework for the safe return to services at a local level. It includes an overview of the services to be resumed, the target for their safe return and some detail on the conditions and challenges that have to be met. Every phase has been informed by clinical guidance and putting patient safety first. The full restoration of health care is dependent on continuing to suppress Covid-19 to avoid another surge for our health services and the associated impacts.

I will raise only one issue and that is human papillomavirus, HPV, vaccination. We all know through the questions I asked a week and a half ago that it has dropped from 80% to 53.6%, which is deeply worrying. I am passionate about this, have worked on it for years and having lobbied to get HPV brought in for boys. What will we do to catch up? Students have gone back to school. We need to have a catch-up. There is no information coming from the HSE as to what catch-up programme will be implemented for HPV.

I suggest we put it for the period of the catch-up to pharmacies, free of charge. I have been inundated with people who want to get their children vaccinated but cannot. As it looks like there will be continuous issues in schools so let us have the other option of doing it through pharmacies and potentially GPs. Laura Brennan's legacy cannot be let go like this, nor can all the work and advocacy she, in particular, did along with others. Will the Taoiseach please ensure there is a catch-up programme so we can get back on track in relation to HPV vaccinations?

I too refer to the plans for a safe return of health services, as published by the HSE. I specifically focus on cancer services, which will not be fully restored until the end of the year, with 90% scheduled by the end of September. All of this is reliant on a successful vaccination roll-out. We cannot afford to miss these targets. The prioritisation of early diagnosis and screening services is central and the Irish Cancer Society has made a call for additional investment and workforce planning to increase low take-up and extend existing programmes to wider populations. Will the Government and, specifically, this sub-committee of Cabinet engage directly with the society on the priority actions it has identified?

Covid-19 has further underlined the need for proper mental health services. We have thousands of adults and children waiting for assessments and services. I spent an hour on the phone last night to a young student studying to be a psychologist. She told me a tale of woe about the plight of people studying to be psychologists and trying to get on doctorate training programmes to be psychologists. In their MA programme, they pay €8,000 to €15,000 in fees. The number of places for psychologists in doctorate training has fallen in the last year and they are not funded. Some of them are funded somewhat but not sufficiently. In education and counselling psychology, they are not funded at all. To make a long story short, she said that working-class people who want to do psychology have virtually no chance of getting doctorates because of the cost, fees, hurdles and obstacles put in their way.

The CEO of Beacon private hospital was caught red-handed essentially stealing public vaccines, treating them as his personal property. He should not get any special treatment just because he is the boss at Denis O'Brien's private hospital and part of the golden circle. The Taoiseach says it was wrong and a gross breach of trust. I agree. The question is whether there will be any consequences. Does the Taoiseach agree his actions should be criminally investigated by the Garda? Does he agree there should be an independent audit involving representatives of the INMO and patients to see exactly what happened? Concretely, does he agree the CEO of the Beacon should resign or be sacked for his disgraceful misappropriation of public vaccines?

SouthDoc is paid €7 million annually by the HSE to provide out-of-hours GP care for public patients. Despite this, their centres in Blackpool on Cork's north side and Listowel in County Kerry are shut. The Blackpool centre has been shut for over a year. The HSE has expressed grave concern about this situation.

The health needs of the people of the north side must not be shoved to one side. When will the Taoiseach and Minister for Health intervene to make sure those doors open again?

Across the country, the State is failing to meet the needs of children with ASD. In Cork, at least 50 children are without a place in Cara Junior School next year. At least a further eight Cara Junior School students are without a special needs secondary school for next September. Will the Taoiseach speak with the relevant Minister to ensure places are immediately found for these eight students and plans are explored for a new school in Cork for schoolchildren with a dual diagnosis? Apologies, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, I know this question would be more appropriately addressed to the Department of Education but the parents asked me to make sure it was posed.

I thank the Deputy. We are running out of time. Deputy Tóibín wanted to contribute briefly.

Today, 480 people will get cancer and, tragically, more people will likely die of cancer. Late diagnosis and treatment will lead to much more advanced cancers coming into the system, which will lead to greater levels of morbidity and death. Why has the Government reduced cancer services when the need is so great at the moment? Will the Government guarantee that full cancer services will return immediately?

I find some of the rhetoric here extraordinary. I take it Deputy Tóibín realises we are in a global pandemic. No Government premeditatedly decides to reduce cancer services. The Deputy should get bloody well realistic. Excuse me, I should not use the word "bloody" but I genuinely think it is a bit much. We want to provide the maximum level of cancer services. There have been backlogs because we are in the middle of a global pandemic, which has had a terrible impact on front-line healthcare services. The national cancer control programme has a schedule for the resumption of cancer services. It is very important. We want to get back to 100% of 2019 levels and we are making progress in some respects in doing that. Part of the reason for the very slow reopening announced yesterday was to facilitate a resumption of services in healthcare. We have provided the resourcing but there have been challenges because of Covid-19. That is obvious.

The Deputy is entitled to make comments but I have to respond. Fair is fair here; no one is reducing cancer services in a premeditated way.

The Government has reduced cancer services.

Deputy Kelly made a very fair point about the reduction in HPV vaccinations. That is a very important issue on which I will revert to him. I will engage with the HSE in terms of the catch-up, perhaps utilising other agencies. Again, all hands are on deck in terms of the vaccination and will be in respect of GPs in particular.

What about pharmacists?

Hopefully, pharmacists will also be involved as we move more into critical mass vaccination. I take the Deputy's point. The HPV vaccination is extremely important and Laura Brennan's legacy must be honoured in that respect. I take that point.

Deputy Boyd Barrett raised the issue of pathways for those studying for a PhD in psychology. I am certainly of the view that we must do everything we possibly can to facilitate better progression through postgraduate education, particularly for people from disadvantaged financial or income backgrounds.

Regarding Deputy Murphy's question, I have been very clear on the Beacon Hospital issue. It was absolutely wrong but it is not for me to determine. I do not set myself up as judge, jury and executioner, and I never have, for example, in terms of criminality in that regard, as the Deputy has asserted. He raised that issue. No one should get any special treatment with regard to any transgression such as this.

We have provided resources to the HSE to ensure the resumption of SouthDoc in Blackpool and Listowel and also for new schools in Cork. I am fully in agreement that we need to provide additional places. I have been in touch with the Minister for Education, the Department and agencies and schools locally to make sure there is a sufficiency of provision for children with special needs in the Cork region, of which there is a dearth at the moment. We need to change the system somewhat as too many schools or agencies seem to have the power within themselves to say "No".