Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Passport Services

I greatly appreciate the opportunity afforded by the Ceann Comhairle to raise this vital issue. Over the last four months, nearly five months now, the Passport Office has been closed. The reason we are raising this is nothing to do with travel. It is not like anyone is expecting to be going abroad any time soon. It is, instead, the sheer fact that a passport is a vital piece of identification for so many people, not only in this State but also for many Irish citizens abroad. This issue has come to a critical point now where people are desperately in need of getting their passports renewed or their passports back out of the passport system. We are talking about Irish citizens who applied for passports for their children in other jurisdictions and now not only do their children not have identification but they do not either. This is prohibiting those people from doing ordinary, everyday business in this State and wider afield. It is stopping people making many plans and having that form of identification which would allow them to be a part of a functioning society. It is vitally important that the services which are provided are reopened as soon as possible.

Deputy Carroll MacNeill has arrived just in the nick of time.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle and also the Minister of State for attending to listen to us raise this significant issue for people. Obviously, passport services have had to be decreased and the Passport Office closed for this period. What I want to ask about is the contingency planning for reopening. There is a significant backlog in excess of 80,000 applications. We were getting queries at an early stage where some people concerned had genuine life-and-death emergencies where they needed to access a passport. I thank the Passport Office for facilitating people in those situations.

Over time, however, it can be seen that the balance and the pressure on people, through their human experience, has been different. I refer to situations such as requiring a passport to open a bank account or to apply for or accept a college place, for example. These more natural things have revealed themselves as the pandemic has gone on. We need to know the contingency planning for addressing this situation quickly. What are we going to do to ensure we can address this backlog? Will there be longer working hours and more working days? How are we going to ensure we get the passports to those people who will need them in the coming months?

I thank Deputies Richmond and Carroll MacNeill for raising what is an important issue which is being raised with Deputies in constituency offices the length and breadth of the country. It has happened for several reasons, as the Deputies outlined. I am pleased to report that the Passport Service continues to provide a high quality, essential service in line with the Government's public health guidance outlined in our national framework on living with Covid-19.

At the outset, I express the apologies of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, who has asked me to stand in for him. However, I had a good conversation with the Minister on this issue today to get the most up-to-date information regarding the situation for the Deputies regarding passport services. The Passport Service has been operational in respect of five key essential fronts during the pandemic. These have included providing passports for emergency and urgent cases. More than 40,000 passports have been issued this year, including approximately 3,000 in response to urgent requests from our citizens at home and abroad. Customer service information has also been provided to more than 40,000 citizens via our web chat service, as well as consular services to our citizens overseas through our consular helpline. The staff of the Passport Office have also been assisting in contact tracing for the HSE as part of the wider national response to Covid-19. They have also been assisting the Department Social Protection to facilitate the processing of essential Covid-19-related benefits.

I emphasise to the House that throughout the pandemic the Passport Service has been open to serving citizens in its highly professional manner. The service is fully committed to assisting citizens who have been or are required to travel due to the death or serious illness of a family member and or who give evidence of a reasonable cause for travel, as defined in the recent amendment to the Health Act 1947, which came into effect on 1 February. The Passport Office is continuing to process renewals and first-time applications where the citizen is only entitled to Irish citizenship or legally required to hold a passport for residency purposes. The urgent service also assists citizens who are resident abroad who require a valid passport for visa purposes or citizens who require a renewal for work purposes.

On behalf of the Government, I commend the staff of the Passport Office for their dedication to their mission of providing a front-line public service during this pandemic and also contributing to the national response in these unprecedented times. I take great pleasure in commending the Passport Office for that work and for its contribution to the national response, which has tested our communities overseas and our people here also.

Were it not for the current pandemic, the Passport Office would be fully operational and the award-winning service would be operating at full throttle. Several organisational adaptations have already been made which have increased efficiency and output, while maintaining the necessary health and safety protocols. This is already making a difference. The Passport Service has a plan in place which will become operational in the near future as restrictions are eased and which will quickly clear the backlog of passport applications.

In the meantime, urgent passport applications will continue to be dealt with expeditiously and the webchat service is available to answer queries about specific circumstances.

On the specific points raised by Deputy Richmond about people who need a passport for reasons other than travel, it is a real issue, and I know that it has been raised with Deputy Richmond in his constituency on a number of occasions. It is one that we are mindful of and it is why we want to get the service back up and running as quickly as possible to make sure we get the full amount back to everybody else.

That leads on to the point raised by Deputy Carroll MacNeill in respect of the plan for clearing the backlog. I can assure the Deputy that the passport service expects that most applications received this year will come from adult renewals and we anticipate to return to a five-day turnaround for these applications within six to eight weeks of reopening. The Central Statistics Office survey from 1 March indicated that 15% of people expect to take an overseas holiday in 2021. In addition, while it is projected that most adults will have received their first dose of vaccine by the end of June, the timeline for children is longer, and we expect that this will impact on the number of families travelling overseas this summer. Therefore, the number of applications received for children are expected to remain low.

As articulated by the two Deputies, there are many reasons people need a passport. We are acutely aware of that. We want to get the service back up and running. We are dealing with emergency cases as it is and we will get back to full service quickly.

We will return to the Minister of a State in a few moments. We short-changed the two Deputies in the first round, so we can give them two minutes each in this round. I call Deputy Richmond.

The Ceann Comhairle could never short-change us. I appreciate his magnanimous approach to the clock.

I fundamentally and absolutely agree with the Minister of State that the passport service to date has been excellent. We all remember, as public representatives over the last decade, how difficult it used to be and how swift the new scheme has been, particularly with online renewals, and the amount of effort that was put in by officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs and outside individuals to ensure that we have, as the Minister of State rightly describes it, an award-winning service.

However, crucially, we do not have a service at the moment. We have a bare-minimum emergency service that is operating at a fraction of the capacity at which it operates in normal times. Even though people are not travelling, the issue is nothing to do with travel. It is about the fundamental right of access to the most important document, I would argue, that any citizen of this State needs to hold. Not everyone drives a car. People cannot even get a driving licence now if they need it because of the backlog. However, a passport is vitally important.

I wish to stress again the absolute limbo that Irish citizens abroad are stuck in, particularly when trying to apply for a passport or register the birth of a new Irish citizen aboard. I will be quite frank. My passport has long expired and I do not know when I am going to be able to get it renewed. It is not that I intend to leave the jurisdiction any time soon. There are hundreds of people, not just in my constituency and those of the Minister of State and Deputy Carroll MacNeill beside mine, who are genuinely worried. They worry that if they apply they will lose documents and passports for weeks and months on end if they are applying for a passport for their children.

At the end of the day, I appreciate the Minister of State's comments and the intervention by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney. He spoke with me directly today on the issue. However, ultimately, the system as is, regardless of level 5 restrictions, is not good enough. We need to be able to provide a credible, real service to which the citizens of this State are entitled. It is not something that can be afforded to them - it is their right.

A passport is a bit like a security blanket. It is something that we need to know is in a drawer for the day when something happens and we need it. We do not know why we will need it in future. Perhaps it may be to travel to see a relative. That is what I am trying to articulate.

People have understood that the service has had to be closed. I thank the Minister of State for confirming that the backlog will be addressed. It is about the communication around that to reassure, for example, the lady who contacted me today, whose passport expires in July. She is not worried about it today but come June, she will be genuinely stressed about it. While some might assert that she will not be travelling as none of us are planning travel at this stage, we do know that there are cases where people need to travel for essential reasons, such as a death in the family. It is about providing that security to people and communicating clearly that the service will resume, it is recognised that there is a backlog and a plan is in place. It must be communicated to them that their concerns are understood and attempts are being made to address them. People should be given timelines so that they know when they will receive their passports.

However, I do want to thank the Passport Office for the exceptional work it has done under pressurised conditions. Of course, the staff have been taken to do more urgent work for the State in response to Covid and in processing the PUP. I thank the staff for being available in those emergency situations and for resolving issues in cases where they have been brought in and asked to consider various applications.

We are moving into a new phase in the pandemic. Some day we will see discretionary international travel return, rather than just emergency international travel. Understandably, people like to have their passport in their back pocket. It is a fundamental document of the State and a person. It is important to them that they can get it back and put it in their drawer, up-to-date, ready for the day when they either need it or want it.

Both Deputies Richmond and Carroll MacNeill have outlined very well the reasons we need to get back to full service. Nobody wants to do that more than the staff of the passport service in a safe way as soon as public health guidelines allow.

It is helpful to put on the record that the volume of applications received in the past year has been significantly impacted by the pandemic. As a result, the number of applications currently in our system awaiting processing is quite low in terms of a normal year. That is not to in any way underestimate or play down the concerns that have been raised and well articulated here. They are very valid concerns. People are concerned about getting their passports for a variety of reasons, not just for travelling, as outlined by Deputy Richmond.

Currently, there are just over 92,000 applications in the system, most of which have been received in the past three months. While this might seem like a large number, in the context of the passport service, it is quite small. In the same period in 2019, approximately 420,000 applications were received, and in 2020 approximately 260,000 applications were received. Two thirds of applications are for renewals of passports. That is important because once services are resumed fully, these can be processed quite quickly because of the technological advancements in the passport service over the past four years. First time applications take longer due to the volume of associated documentation and the stringent verification process that must be carried out to ensure that we maintain the integrity of the Irish passport.

It is important to bear in mind that the Irish passport is considered to be one of the most valued in the world due to its visa-free status in 186 countries. Approximately one third of the applications in our system are for first time applicants.

The fact that the Irish passport is such a prized document was at the heart of the points made by Deputies Carroll MacNeill and Richmond. We take that on board. We want to get back to full processing as quickly as the public health guidelines allow. That is our determination. I commend the staff in the passport service for working under the difficult circumstances of the pandemic over the last year.

Mental Health Services

I thank the Minister of State for taking the time to hear this matter.

I am becoming increasingly concerned about the ability of children and young adults with special and complex needs and disabilities to access the psychological services they need. This is an issue that has presented itself to me on a number of occasions since the first lockdown last year, when I was approached by the families of children with special needs who were beside themselves with worry about their young children.

Recently, I was approached by a parent in my constituency whose family has found itself in this situation. Jack, on whose behalf I am speaking today, is a young adult with special needs. However, like so many others around the country, his ability to interact on a social level has been restricted. These restrictions have resulted in him not being able to attend the local centre that he has used so much in the past, and whose contribution to his life has been immeasurable. He loves GAA but restrictions have prevented him from accessing this social outlet as well. In designing these restrictions, what has been forgotten about are the measures that need to be in place to help families deal with the consequences that these limitations have for their loved ones.

During the first round of restrictions last year, Jack’s anxiety increased and his sleep patterns changed. He was given some medication to deal with this but soon the benefits began to wear off, which brings me to the situation as it is right now. Six weeks ago Jack’s anxiety increased to such a level that he could no longer sleep. For four days and four nights, he did not get a wink of sleep and his levels of anxiety continued to increase. His parents were burning the candle at both ends and a doctor’s appointment could not be secured for a week and a half.

However, when he got that appointment, his emotional needs were not addressed. Jack, of course, was in need of psychological assessment and counselling. His mother has told me that every avenue she went down ended in a brick wall. There were no accessible or immediate psychological services available for her son because he has special needs.

The more she tried, the more disheartened, worried and desperate she got. She described it to me as like drowning. Finally, through the supreme efforts of the local MooreHaven Centre, which, she said, went above and beyond in helping her, she managed to link up with a psychologist. The Minister of State might think that I am now going to detail a happy resolution to this issue. In fact, Jack is now on a three-week waiting list. All the while, his level of anxiety has to be dealt with by a family that are struggling and feel let down and left out because their son happens to have special needs. The family is trying to remain positive for him, keep his spirits up and keep him well, but they are fearful of the consequences of all of this for their son if his needs remain unaddressed.

The Minister of State will appreciate that in all situations like this, time is of the essence. If the family gets the scheduled appointment for Jack, this episode in their lives will have gone on for nine weeks. I have reason to believe it is not an isolated case. If Jack's family were here today to tell the Minister of State about all of this, what would he say to them? Could he tell them the extent to which he foresaw this type of eventuality and what measures he took to deal with such? Can he tell me what he intends to do to resolve Jack's situation and the similar situations countless families are experiencing? When the Covid restrictions were being considered, was enough done to deal with the impact the measures would potentially have on people's mental well-being? Jack's mother has described the system of accessible psychology supports for people like her son as atrocious.

I thank the Deputy for articulating the very difficult situation of Jack and his family and the issues they are dealing with, especially during the Covid crisis. Developing all aspects of mental health, including improving links with other care programmes such as disabilities, is a priority for me and for the Government. This is underpinned by our new mental health policy, Sharing the Vision, the HSE service plan for 2021 for both mental health and disability care programmes, and the range of initiatives developed by Government to maximise all healthcare provision in the light of Covid-19.

Recommendation 48 of Sharing the Vision aims to improve intensive supports for people with complex mental health difficulties and intellectual disabilities. The HSE and its service partnership agencies, particularly their front-line staff, have met various serious Covid challenges so far and will continue to do so. If the Deputy sends in the details of Jack's situation, we will try to address the issues. The Department and HSE continue to plan for the evolving situation overall, including any surge in demand as it arises.

In line with Government recommendations to minimise the spread of Covid-19, children's disability services were stepped down, as the Deputy noted, in March 2020. In July, the HSE issued guidance to support resumption of the services. Throughout the pandemic, specialist mental health services have operated at 80% to 90% of pre-Covid levels, but the remaining 10% are causing issues. Children and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, intellectual disability teams have continued to work with children with intellectual disabilities and their families, with the aim of offering the best possible service throughout the pandemic.

However, service delivery has changed, based on restrictions and considering the additional physical needs of service users. There has been a significant shift to online service delivery, teleconference clinics and meetings, including the Attend Anywhere initiative, and telephone consultations. Where needed, face-to-face appointments and hospital visits have been maintained. Families are being facilitated by not having to travel to clinics for prescription collection, as this can be done with pharmacies via secure health mail accounts. Where there are appropriate facilities, regular medication reviews with families, schools and teams are taking place via telemedicine arrangements. Due to school closures, school assessment visits were not happening. However, any new assessments are similarly being held via video consultations. Before the school closures, there were online forums and teleconference meetings to provide school observations and meetings with teachers and special needs school staff. This approach was also taken to liaise with respite services and other services, as needed. CAMHS intellectual disability teams also aim to maintain care through regular contact with residential homes in their areas. In addition, all telehealth and online cognitive behavioural therapy, CBT, supports are available to people with disabilities. Counselling for those with sight impairment can be delivered by telephone.

I do not have all the answers to the issues the Deputy has raised but if there is any way we can address the situation for Jack and his family, we will try to do so. I ask that the Deputy send the details to me and I will try to address the matter as quickly as possible. He has articulated a very difficult situation and I thank him for taking the time to come in here and do so. I hope it can be resolved.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. The problem I have raised is an example of how the importance of mental health provision in this country is continuously overlooked. We discussed that during the debate on Deputy Ward's motion that was passed earlier in the week. People like Jack are suffering because of a poorly provisioned mental health service. The World Health Organization advises that 14% of a country's health budget should be set aside for mental health provision. We fall way short of that in this country. Successive Governments have fallen short by ignoring the issues and allowing them to pile up year after year.

I appreciate that the Covid crisis has set the situation back and everything had to be done in that context. However, that is little comfort to parents like Jack's, who have been up four nights on the trot. I know the family well and his mother came to me a couple of years ago, at the start of all of this. The issues are continuous. They started when he was underage and, when he reached 18, he fell between the cracks. There are families like Jack's all around the country, in my constituency and in those of the Ministers of State, Deputies Feighan, Rabbitte and Butler. People are falling through the cracks because there is not enough funding for mental health services.

If the Government does nothing else before it finishes its term, I ask that it address this issue and ensure that families like Jack's, when they go looking for services because they are worried about their children, will find that the help is there for them. It should not be a case of scraping the bottom of the barrel. In Tipperary, all our services were taken away. If people have a mental health issue and need help, they must go to Kilkenny if they are in the south of the county and to Ennis if they are in the north of the county. Tipperary is the largest inland county in Ireland and it does not have health services for people like Jack. I plead with the Minister of State and his colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, to get control of this situation. Allocating 14% of the health budget to mental health should be the aim of this Government before the end of its term.

I thank the Deputy for keeping this important issue to the fore. He can rest assured that my colleagues, the Ministers of State, Deputies Rabbitte and Butler, and I will continue to do likewise, particularly in the context of the Government roll-out of the Covid vaccination programme nationally, as this will, in turn, benefit our respective care sectors. The Deputy described how Jack's parents are awake four nights a week. It is a very difficult time for them and I hope their situation can be addressed. It is essential that children with disabilities have access to timely and appropriate mental health and other services. We are committed to ensuring that such supports are developed and enhanced through the implementation of national policy, including Sharing the Vision, mental health clinical care programmes and the HSE's national service plans.

There is much good work being done and I pay tribute to the people in the front-line services, especially these particular services. It has been a difficult time for the people providing services and a very difficult time for people like Jack and their families. Whatever we can do in this House to iron out those difficulties, we will do it. I hope we can ensure, in the coming days, weeks and months, that the Deputy will not have to come in here again to articulate the situation of Jack and his family. I thank him again for raising it.

Public Services Provision

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for facilitating this debate. It took a pandemic, with people, in effect, spending more than a year indoors, for us to realise what is needed to enable us to enjoy the outdoors and our public spaces. The last public toilets in this city closed 21 years ago. With that closure, a crucial part of what makes the city living and accessible was lost. Many people have been campaigning for public toilets for years. Like so many things, the lack of these very basic facilities in our country is something we cannot continue to ignore as we emerge from the pandemic.

The Minister of State is aware that today Dublin City Council gave us some very welcome news by saying it would open all its buildings so people could use their public bathrooms. This is not just a matter within the cities, although it may be felt most keenly around the centre of the capital city. I know even in the Minister of State's constituency in Dún Laoghaire, whether in the People's Park or elsewhere, it is a matter causing much discomfort and problems for people.

This is not a trivial or insignificant matter. The UN special rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation wrote in 2019 that access to water and sanitation in spheres of life beyond the household, particularly in public spaces, is an essential element of human rights and that a failure of states to include access to water and sanitation in public spaces is inconsistent with the commitment to the sustainable development goals, with which the Minister of State, as a Green Party member, will be very familiar.

The lack of access to adequate toilet facilities is also a gender and accessibility matter. We can consider how this affects people who are menstruating, those who are pregnant, families with toddlers or those with disabilities who are assisted by carers. Toilets are essential not just in our city but across towns and national parks so that they can be enjoyed by all to the full.

The Office of Public Works, OPW, manages more than 2,000 buildings spread across 1,700 properties throughout the country. I have a very specific request, which is that the OPW follows the work of Dublin City Council and opens its buildings so there can be greater access to public toilets and facilities.

I highlight the special case of the Phoenix Park. I am very lucky as I have the Phoenix Park and St. Stephen's Green within my 5 km zone. The Phoenix Park has 1,752 acres and it is the largest enclosed public park in any capital city in Europe, but it has only three toilet facilities. Hyde Park in London, which is a fifth of the size of the Phoenix Park, has more facilities. I had the opportunity to visit the Phoenix Park once again over the weekend and there was a 20-minute queue for the restrooms at the tea rooms there, which is simply unacceptable and an affront to basic decency. There is much we can do, including opening the cricket clubs and installing temporary toilet facilities. We can open the facilities on Infirmary Road.

Not having public toilets kills liveability and enjoyment of cities, towns and national parks. The Alice Leahy Trust has been campaigning for public toilets and showers since 2006. Up to the 1970s there were 60 staffed public toilets in Dublin. There are currently two temporary public bathrooms in Dublin city that cost approximately €182,000 each per year to staff and maintain. The OPW manages over 2,000 buildings and in most there is a staff member on duty over weekends who could simply open the door and allow people in.

This is a matter of public health and comfort. If we are innovative and pragmatic in our solutions and if we get this right, it will work in the long term not just for my city, which I love, but every city, town and village or every park and beach in the country. The pandemic has allowed us the opportunity to get away from trying to unsee things we have allowed to fester in the country, and one of those is simply not providing comfortable spaces where people can use the bathroom. It is basic dignity in how we live in cities, towns and villages.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. As he said, this is not trivial at all but a matter of basic public health. The level 5 restrictions have had the side effect of bringing more people out from indoor amenities to public and natural outdoor amenities, with the consequence of preventing people from using toilets they would have used in commercial facilities like pubs, restaurants and hotels, as well as public facilities such as those in libraries and so on. It has led to there being increased pressure on remaining public toilets.

I welcome the announcement by Dublin City Council today that it will open 22 of its public buildings on a toilets-only basis. It is a very practical measure and I understand councillors in Dún-Laoghaire Rathdown will bring similar proposals to their executive management. I urge councillors around the country to follow suit.

I am answering this matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, who cannot be here. The national heritage estate is managed by the Office of Public Works and includes parks like the Phoenix Park and historic gardens such as the National Botanic Gardens. In those locations, all public toilet facilities are allowed to open under the Government restrictions relating to Covid-19. They are fully open and operational to the public.

There is increased demand for use of all our historic sites by the public in this period, but the existing facilities are, by and large, coping with demand and there are no significant capacity issues. Locations include popular local parks such as Doneraile Park, John F. Kennedy Arboretum in New Ross, Emo Court parklands in Laois, St. Enda's Park in Rathfarnham and Kilkenny Castle parkland. Visitors may have to queue during exceptionally busy periods and we ask the public to be patient with both our local teams and their fellow visitors if and when they might be required to queue to use toilet facilities.

In respect of the Phoenix Park, as the Deputy is aware the park is experiencing unprecedented demand in recent months. Large volumes of visitors are availing of the wonderful amenity of the 1,752 acres of park for health and well-being. The existing public toilet facilities in the Phoenix Park have been developed to date where there is suitable water and wastewater infrastructure at locations, including the Phoenix Park visitor centre and the tea rooms referred to by the Deputy, along with Farmleigh house and estate.

The Deputy will acknowledge that the park is primarily a green space and the network of wastewater is limited to certain areas. Therefore, it is not possible to install additional permanent facilities at many locations across the park. However, I am pleased to advise that the park management is progressing a plan to add temporary Portaloo-type facilities at additional locations in the Phoenix Park, including at the Papal Cross car park. There is some concern that some of these facilities may be subject to vandalism, and I have seen this in my local authority, especially as the park is open 24 hours per day. Park management will keep temporary toilet facilities provision under constant review.

The OPW has played a significant role all through the Covid-19 pandemic in ensuring our national heritage estate can be accessed and enjoyed by our citizens in the coming months. As restrictions are eased, we look forward to opening our heritage sites more fully to include those indoor museums, castles, houses and visitor centres which are currently closed because of ongoing Government restrictions. The OPW has no role or function in the provision of restroom infrastructure in towns and cities throughout the country. As the Deputy is aware, local authorities are responsible for all matters relating to public amenities in their respective local areas. I suggest that my colleague, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, is best placed to respond to the specifics of those aspects of the Deputy's query.

The OPW has no role in the management and operation of our national parks. The National Parks and Wildlife Service is responsible for the operation of national parks at Glenveagh, Wicklow, Connemara, Ballycroy, the Burren and Killarney. That service forms part of the heritage division at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and so, once again, I suggest that my colleague, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage would be best placed to respond on facilities in national parks.

I suspect the public may sometimes find it rather difficult to queue patiently for these facilities.

Would you believe I wrote down those exact sentiments? I echo those comments that some people find it easier than others to wait patiently. For example, there are people with Crohn's disease, and there are any number of reasons a person may find it difficult to wait patiently.

It is not often we get a positive announcement with a Topical Issue matter but the fact the Phoenix Park will have temporary toilet facilities at the Papal Cross is very welcome. I thank the Minister of State for making that announcement. I will engage with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage on further facilities because this is so important. We cannot let it pass us by, especially when there is more demand than there had been.

I challenge the assumption that commercial facilities, when they reopen, will solve this. They will alleviate the problem to a degree, but many people who want to see cities, towns and villages and use the bathroom while doing so may find it uncomfortable to ask to do that. They often have toddlers and people need nappy changing facilities. We need facilities where a person with a disability can hoist himself or herself if necessary. We need to take collective responsibility on this.

I appreciate the Minister of State suggests the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage may be more appropriate but we can all work together on this. The Opposition and the Government can engage with Departments and local authorities to bring a satisfactory conclusion to the matter on a national level. Dublin City Council's announcement on this demonstrates a template for what the OPW can do with its own buildings. Working across Departments, we can alleviate discomfort being experienced by people, especially as the weather improves. I thank the Minister of State.

As the pandemic draws to a close, I hope that one of the things which will continue is that people will go out in large numbers to their local parks. Many people have been forced to explore their 5 km range and have discovered all kinds of natural things in their local areas from which they have gained great pleasure. I expect that there will be more people outdoors and that this will create a lasting demand for toilet facilities. I accept that we cannot rely on commercial facilities and that we must have public facilities.

With regard to people with more complex disabilities or who require a greater level of accessibility in toilet facilities, Marley Park installed a changing places facility which includes a hoist. It is 12 sq. m and provides space for somebody to help a person to use it. That allowed people who had that type of disability to expand where they could go and for how many hours they could leave their home. It meant they could go to the park and enjoy a day out there whereas, previously, they could only go a certain distance away from home before they needed to reach a toilet. It empowered people. It is expensive, but it is something we can deploy across the country. I would love to see that. This year, we are in an era of capital investment and I would be pleased if money went on that. The provision of toilets is not a trivial matter. It is important and is a matter of public health. I am glad the Deputy raised it.

Covid-19 Tests

Last year, the Minister for Health established an expert group to report on the use of rapid Covid-19 tests and to make recommendations on how such tests could be used in different settings. In fairness to the Minister, he put together talented people to form the group to advise him on these matters. The group was chaired by Professor Mark Ferguson, the Government's chief scientific adviser, and comprised two professors of infectious diseases, Professor Mary Horgan and Professor Paddy Mallon, Kingston Mills, professor of immunology at Trinity College Dublin, Dr. Lorraine Doherty, national clinical director with the HSE, and Dr. Darina O'Flanagan, an adviser to NPHET. The Minister put together what could only be described as a super league of immunologists and medical personnel to give advice to the Government on this topic.

The report was released earlier this month. It recommends that rapid Covid-19 testing, such as antigen testing, should be used to complement PCR testing. It did not suggest that we get rid of PCR testing, but it pointed out that antigen testing and other forms of rapid Covid-19 testing should be used in certain settings. For example, it recommends it should be used in certain medical spheres, such as in care homes to enable people to get back to visiting those care homes. It also recommends that it should be used in certain workplaces, particularly workplaces that are high risk such as meat factories. It recommends that rapid testing be used in universities. One thing every Deputy must agree with is that we must get third level students back on campus as soon as possible. However, the report further recommends that rapid Covid-19 testing be used in sport. It said it should be used to get people back participating in sport, but what is relevant to this matter is that it recommends that it be used for the purpose of getting spectators back at matches and at outdoor events. If this happens and applies, it will not just be for the benefit of outdoor sports because we will also be able to use it in an indoor context. In particular, it would be beneficial to accelerate the return of cultural and artistic events, which have been decimated as a result of the pandemic.

The report, which contains several recommendations, has been released. It recommends that the Government start seeking to apply them immediately. The reason I refer to it is that one of the organisations referred to in the report, the IRFU, has decided to expedite it through the Leinster branch making a proposal to the Government. The Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, will be aware that the Leinster branch has submitted a proposal to the Government that on 15 May next, when a rugby match is due to take place between Leinster and Ulster in the Royal Dublin Society, RDS, that 2,000 antigen-tested spectators be permitted into the ground. It has set out a mechanism by which it will do this. It involves people arriving a number of hours before the match is due to kick off. They will be antigen tested and then leave. Later in the day, they will get a message on their telephone and they will return and be admitted if they record a negative Covid-19 test. The benefit of this is not just for the purpose of trying to see a match in Dublin in the near future. It will be of great benefit to the GAA, soccer and other outdoor sporting events, as well as cultural events. The Government must engage with the Leinster branch on this issue to ensure we get this up and running as a trial spectator event.

I appreciate the Deputy raising this matter. Under the Government's living with Covid plan, spectators are permitted to attend sporting events in limited numbers when the relevant area of the country is at level 1 or level 2 of the measures in place to keep us safe. As the country is currently at level 5, no spectators are currently permitted at sports matches or events, but certain professional and high-performance sports are allowed to take place behind closed doors. The Government's plan for living with Covid states that for very large purpose-built event facilities, for example, stadia, specific guidance will be developed with the relevant sectors to take account of size and different conditions for events such as large national and international sporting events. This would apply in respect of sporting events taking place if we were at level 1 or level 2 in the plan. Notwithstanding the current level 5 restrictions, the finalisation and application of this guidance remain absolute priorities for me.

A working group was established to investigate how a safe return of some spectators could be facilitated. It comprised representatives of the FAI, the GAA and the IRFU, as well as stadium operators and event managers, officials from my Department and Sport Ireland. The group reviewed international guidance, considered lessons from spectator events hosted elsewhere in Europe and consulted independent health and safety experts. The collaborative approach of the group saw contributions from all parties. I have reviewed all the work of the expert group on the return to sport. Officials from my Department are consulting with the relevant public bodies on the report and its draft guidelines are receiving their support. I reiterate our thanks to the working group that brought it to this point.

With regard to the Ferguson group, the Minister for Health published its report on 1 April last, as the Deputy mentioned. I understand the main tenet of the work on the report was to examine how rapid testing can complement other public health measures, and that rapid antigen tests are primarily aimed at identifying asymptomatic cases. According to the report, antigen tests can become part of a suite of measures, such as social distancing and the use of face masks, which mitigate the risk of spreading Covid-19. The report can be considered to broadly propose three phases of development: use antigen testing regimes already in place to verify their usefulness; move antigen testing into new areas; consider the use of antigen tests to assist with the return of spectators to events. For example, recommendation B 1.9(e) reiterates the premise that rapid testing should begin first with participants in sports and then with spectators. The report will be among the materials that will help inform us for the return of spectators to sports grounds when it is safe to do so.

It is worth noting the UK experience, where there will be a trial event next weekend with antigen testing. Approximately 8,000 people will attend a football cup final and the use of rapid antigen tests will be trialled as part of that. That test follows experience gained earlier this year in managing attendance at matches. This latest test event will also be supervised under an academic study package. In addition, all attendees will take a more reliable PCR test before attending the game to assess the accuracy of antigen tests. Attendees will also take a PCR test after attendance at the game to monitor any effects. Officials in my Department are in regular contact with our counterparts in the UK to learn from its experience.

My Department, with other health authorities, will continue to monitor closely the progress of trials of rapid antigen testing for Covid-19 at scale. In the meantime, we will continue to be guided by health officials on how best to allow safe attendance at sporting and cultural events. I am optimistic that test events can be undertaken over the summer. We all are ambitious, as is the Deputy, for the return to sport generally and also to ensure that spectators can return over the summer. We have to give people that hope. The caveat to all that is the overriding epidemiologic situation.

With a ramped-up vaccination programme, we can be positive about the return of spectators during the summer.

I thank the Minister of State for his answer. I am fully aware of his commitment to getting people back playing and watching sport. Obviously, the Minister of State is correct in saying we are at level 5 at present and limited in what we can do. We need to recognise that hope is out there, however. We cannot continue to live with this sense of doom and dread, listening to numbers every evening. Hope is out there in the form of the vaccination. Societally and epidemiologically, we will have changed to a much better place by the time May comes, and more so by June and July. We need to recognise that we need to plan ahead for this.

As the Minister of State said, the Ferguson report referred to fact that we need to use antigen testing for the purpose of getting people back participating in sport but also back watching sport. I agree with that. Obviously, the priority should be to get people playing sport, no matter what type of sport it is, particularly younger people who have been deprived of sport now for nearly four months. I agree with the Minister of State in that respect.

The Minister of State said we need to be guided by public health and that is correct also. We need a vision for the future, however. The Minister of State will regret this just much as I do but it looks like we have lost the UEFA matches from Ireland. I am disappointed about that because it is intended that those matches will take place in June. We need to try to make sure we have a pathway in place to ensure that spectators can get back to sporting events in May, June and July. Those are great months for the GAA in this country as well. We want to see people being able to go the championship and to attend their hurling and football matches, and indeed, other outdoor events. My fear is that unless we give an indication to the sporting bodies that we are behind the proposals in the Ferguson report and that we believe antigen testing is the way to go, we simply will not get there.

I thank Deputy O'Callaghan. As he mentioned, we are at level 5 and we need to see ramped-up vaccination levels and continued suppression of the virus. As I said, the Ferguson report offers the prospect of building on the work the expert group has done with the FAI, IRFU and GAA on a plan regarding the return of spectators. I believe we will see that this summer and we will be able to start to pilot and to test events. We would all like to see spectators back at one of the all-Ireland matches or even at League of Ireland games this summer. I am positive and optimistic about that. It is about timing, however. We have had planning on this since autumn of last year with the draft return of spectators and test events underpinned by that. The Ferguson report complements our capacity to do that. As Deputy O'Callaghan mentioned, antigen testing will play a key role, not only around sport but also third level education and other key areas of society that we want to see reopen and stay open.

The Deputy mentioned that we have been in a difficult position with the Euro 2020 matches. We have not been able to give the assurance of 25% spectators in the Aviva Stadium for those games. That will obviously have an impact on UEFA's decision. It is very difficult to be able give certainty at this point and tell people that we can have 11,000 or 12,000 spectators present in June when we have such an overarching degree of restrictions.

I share the Deputy's view, however. We need to get sport prioritised and reopened and we are doing so. Next Monday, we will see our kids back playing in pods of 15 again. Hopefully, we can extend that to a greater extent in May and then, through the summer, as I said, see not only the return of all-Ireland and League of Ireland games but also the broader return of competition in sport, which many young people and adults have missed out on for many months. I am ambitious about that and we all want to see it return and continue. Physical and mental health is important and outdoor activity is being prioritised by Government.

Written Answers are published on the Oireacthas website.
The Dáil adjourned at 9.25 p.m. until 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 28 April 2021.