Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

Tomorrow the Taoiseach will announce his plan for the gradual reopening of our society and economy. There is now some light at the end of the tunnel. As more vaccines come on stream, all of us hope that we can start to catch up with others and that more people will start getting back to work. For all of us, particularly for those who have not seen a day's work in over a year, a return to working life cannot come quickly enough. However, the reality as we meet today is that there are more than 400,000 workers relying on the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and a further 310,000 depending on the wage subsidy scheme. There are tens of thousands of workers who have not seen a day's work in over a year and many of them are wondering if they will return to work at all. There is still great uncertainty for workers, particularly in the sectors hardest hit by the pandemic. I refer to those who are prevented from going to work due to public health restrictions and for them, income supports have been absolutely vital in keeping their heads above water and just making it to the end of each week.

Yesterday, at a meeting of the Oireachtas Select Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach, the Taoiseach failed to give a concrete assurance that income supports will not be cut during this emergency. Indeed, speaking on RTÉ on Monday, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, was equally unclear as to what those on income supports might face come the end of June. The Government's lack of clarity is causing great anxiety for those who have seen their incomes collapse through no fault of their own. They are already dealing with the stress of not knowing when they will be able to earn a living again, while also trying to keep their families safe during this pandemic. The pressure on them is immense and the least they deserve is certainty that the income supports on which they depend will not be pulled from under them.

The plan to reopen the economy, which the Taoiseach will announce tomorrow, must include an absolute assurance that while public health advice prevents workers from going to work and businesses from operating, income supports will continue. I very much hope that this will be for the short term. None of us wants this to go on forever. It cannot go on forever because people need to get back to work. Now is not the time for the Taoiseach or his Government colleagues to be floating ideas about cuts or the phasing out of supports. Workers still have rents, mortgages and bills to pay and food to put on the table and many have children to provide for. The PUP has been their lifeline and any decision to cut supports would be grossly unfair. In fact, it would be devastating for these families. These are families who watched on as the Taoiseach signed off on an obscene pay hike of €81,000 for the new Secretary General of the Department of Health and as he delivered pay hikes for super junior Ministers and judges and pension hikes for former Taoisigh. There cannot be one rule for those at top and another for those struggling to get by. That is exactly what happened following the previous crash but it cannot be repeated now.

We face immense challenges but they are not insurmountable. We can build a stronger, fairer Ireland but only if we have a fair recovery driven by investment, stimulus and, above all, a determination to protect the well-being of workers and families. That must start today. The Taoiseach is being cautious and careful with the reopening. I ask him to be equally cautious and careful with these families and to clarify that the supports they rely on will not be cut or phased out as long as there is a public health emergency.

The virus, Covid-19, has wreaked havoc and caused a lot of damage in many sectors of the economy, creating a lot of unemployment as a result. It is not the public health restrictions per se that have done that, but the virus. The public health restrictions are there to protect people and society from the virus. That is the context. As a result of the virus and Covid-19, the Government has introduced unprecedented interventions to support incomes and jobs and to keep as many businesses viable as possible so that when we emerge from Covid, those businesses can restart and reboot, maintain jobs and create further jobs into the future in the context of a national recovery. To date, approximately €28 billion has been provided for Covid-related spending programmes, almost half of which was on the PUP and wage subsidy schemes. That is in addition to core programmes, including in the areas of enterprise and the labour market, and a range of other supports that were provided.

The Government has been very clear, proactive and ahead of the situation in clarifying some time ago that it would retain all supports until the end of June. We said there would be no cliff edge in terms of the withdrawal of supports. We have been very clear about that.

The Government strategy for getting the virus case numbers, hospitalisation levels and intensive care admissions down has worked. The people of Ireland have made it work by adhering to the guidelines and regulations. The vast majority have done so and, as a result, we are in a much better position than anticipated or modelled, which is good. Obviously, we are dealing with a variant that is particularly transmissible but, that said, what we said at the end of March we would do in April has been done. We have secured the reopening of schools and childcare facilities. Residential construction has resumed, as has outdoor sports training for under 18s as well as tennis, golf and a number of other areas. We have delivered what we said we would deliver. We also said we would examine a whole range of areas for the month of May.

The important economic point to make is that as sectors reopen and people return to work, there will be a natural reduction in the number of people availing of pandemic supports. The macroeconomic advice from the International Monetary Fund, IMF, and the European Central Bank, ECB, is to maintain the approach we have adopted so far of underpinning income and business supports so that we can recover from the devastating impact of this pandemic on the economy and people's livelihoods. Many sectors are suffering and have endured a lot. Retail, hospitality, tourism, travel and aviation have suffered globally and at a European level as well as in Ireland. The Government has a range of initiatives under way, including the national economic recovery plan, which will be designed to calibrate supports to help businesses to restart and reboot, the national development plan, the submission we will make for funding under the European recovery and resilience facility and the Brexit adjustment reserve.

I do not want to play a game of semantics with the Taoiseach at this point but the reality is that sectors of the economy have been closed down because the public health advice has been that it is not safe to go to work.

All of us want the economy to reopen speedily and safely. I was not putting a question to the Taoiseach in respect of the natural reduction that will accrue as people return to work and businesses reopen. I am asking for a simple statement of assurance for those workers in sectors that have not reopened, and that may not reopen in such a speedy fashion, that they will not face cuts or reductions of any sort come July.

We are coming into the month of May at the weekend. In a spirit of fairness for workers and their families, it is only fair that they have clarity that for as long as they cannot go to work and certain businesses cannot reopen. On foot of the public health emergency and in line with public health advice, those workers, businesses and families should retain the full level of support that has been afforded to them. I simply want clarity and a full statement on that point today.

To be fair, the Government has acted in an unprecedented way in intervening in the economy to support incomes, particularly through the pandemic unemployment payment. Some €7.3 billion has been paid out to date. We have made it very clear that there will be no cliff edge fall-off in the context of the supports. We stated, well in advance, that supports will continue until the end of June. We are making progress in reopening society and the economy. That is important in order to get things moving again. We must then look at how we can help sectors that have suffered more than others to restart, create employment and get people working again. It will be a key objective of Government to get people working again. Our approach all along has been to support people through income supports and to support enterprises through wage subsidy schemes and other programmes designed to keep businesses intact.

Last week, I asked the Taoiseach about the vaccine roll-out. I am going to ask him about it again this week and will probably do so every week. Unfortunately, when I raised this matter last week, dare I say it, the Taoiseach made quite a cynical charge, which was that, in essence, asking questions about the roll-out is somehow not putting on the green jersey. The Taoiseach knows I put on the green jersey numerous times throughout this crisis and will continue to do so. Please do not go down that line again.

Transparency is the Taoiseach's friend here. With respect, this is the only opportunity any of us gets to ask him questions about the most important issue facing us as a country. I note the change in language over the past 24 hours. The Minister for Health has asked us not to be fixated on the June date - or, I jes, or the "31 June" date - or on the 82% or 55% targets set by the Government. The Taoiseach has said that he is pursuing this, so there has been a change in language. It is important to point out that I and others are not fixated on it either. This is not a "gotcha" moment as the Taoiseach once referenced. These are figures and dates that the Taoiseach and the Government have set. I, and the rest of us, want to see this substantially achieved, whether it is 79% or 81%, or by the first week in June. We want to see it substantially achieved and to work with the Taoiseach in that spirit, to be fair. Everyone is dependent on this; workers, those trying to reopen businesses and people whose lives would be affected if they were infected. I welcome the fact that there have been announcements in respect of the under-50s who have been infected - they will only need one jab - and vaccinations for pregnant women.

I have a number of questions for the Taoiseach and I want him to answer them. As was eloquently pointed out by Mark Coughlan on "Prime Time" last night, the majority of Johnson & Johnson vaccines are coming at the end of June. In view of the fact that in order to reach 82%, everyone up to their late 20s would have to get their first jab by the end of June, how will the Government ensure that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will be used for 50- to 59-year-olds without skipping that cohort and going down to younger cohorts, before then coming back to it? Is that being considered or what is the plan? Logistically, it is very difficult to see how it can work without doing so. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is coming in late June but people from 50 to 59 years of age are supposed to have had their first vaccination by then.

In the context of the actual number of people who will be vaccinated, we are now at 190,000 a week. We were meant to be at 250,000. That is fine, that is slippage. However, in order to reach the target, we would have to be at 450,000 vaccinations a week by the middle of June. Is that achievable?

There are 480,000 people in the current cohort of 60- to 69-year-olds. The Taoiseach is among their number and I congratulate him in that regard. Some 260,000 have registered, which means that 220,000 have not. What is our plan collectively to ensure that the majority of people register? That is a huge number of people who have not registered.

I thank the Deputy for raising these important issues. Of course, it is extremely important to raise the vaccine question. Vaccines are a vital part of our overall strategy to keep the pressure on this virus and to protect people. First, to protect people's health and well-being and then to protect society and enable it to return to near-normal activities. The vaccines have been very effective and impactful in reducing ill health, death and rates of transmission among those who have been inoculated already. It is very evident in hospital settings in terms of front-line healthcare workers, nursing home settings and from what the data is showing for the over-70s. More than 95% of the latter will have been vaccinated this week. That shows the efficacy of the vaccines and the need to keep rolling them out.

Last week, approximately 183,000 people were vaccinated. The objective is to get vaccines out as we get them in. Some 27.5% have received their first dose and about 10.9% have received a second dose. The delivery schedule for quarter 2 is still on track if everything comes in. Everything we have said to date, working with the task force, has been based on supply, orderly delivery schedules and so on. That has not happened all of the time, as we know. We had issues with AstraZeneca which lost us some weeks. We received different advices for Johnson & Johnson which meant the HSE had to go back to operationalise that advice and go back to the logistics. Again, the HSE will now take a number of days to go through the advice from the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, in respect of the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines and work it into its planning. The HSE will continue vaccinating, obviously, but will come back with a revised approach following the advice from NIAC. That is understandable.

It is important to remember that that 4.5 million vaccine doses are due in during quarter 2, which is a very high number. The delivery schedules come later in terms of the precision from week to week as to when particular shipments will come in. There was very good news today about Pfizer BioNTech. The largest ever delivery of Pfizer vaccines - 191,800 - to this country has arrived. Pfizer has proved to be particularly reliable.

As regards the Deputy's questions, the NIAC advice is being worked through. The modelling the task force in the HSE has done is on the basis of 450,000 a week and on utilisation of vaccination centres, GPs, pharmacists, the community and the allocation of all available resources. That is the level of modelling that has been done. The objective is to get as many people vaccinated as we possibly can and, notwithstanding all the obstacles and challenges that have arisen, to keep close to those targets by the end of June. Those involved are ready to go at it once we get the supplies in on schedule.

I sincerely wish them the best. The HSE has done a good job. It has faced very difficult challenges with the criteria changing all the time.

I acknowledge that. Of my three questions, the Taoiseach answered the one I asked about achieving 450,000 vaccinations a week. He said that figure is achievable and is being projected. He answered that question directly, which I respect.

Unless some miracle is going to happen, I do not understand how we will logistically manage the 50 to 59-year-olds with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine without moving ahead and vaccinating the younger cohorts. The projections just do not work out that way, as Mark Coughlan pointed out on "Prime Time" last night. I had the same thoughts. In addition, some 220,000 60 to 69-year-olds have not registered. We must collectively have a plan.

Of the 247,000 people who have been infected, 100,000 are aged under 50. If we take out the small percentage of those who are immunocompromised, how are we to identify those who are to receive just one vaccine?

(Interruptions).

According to NIAC, people in this group now need only one vaccine.

My final question is about 60 to 69-year-olds who are getting the AstraZeneca vaccine. They have to wait for 12 weeks for a second dose. If a green certificate is introduced, those aged over 70 will have received either a Pfizer or Moderna vaccine and will be fully vaccinated and those aged over 50 will have the Janssen vaccine and will be fully vaccinated. The Taoiseach can see why 60 to 69-year-olds are concerned about a green certificate and not being fully vaccinated because they have to wait for three weeks. How will that be dealt with?

Regarding the operational logistics the Deputy has raised in respect of various age cohorts, the HSE is working through that. It is clear, however, that we will have to get moving and get vaccinating with available vaccines as they come in. The HSE will operationalise the advice it has received.

People are continuing to register and there has been good momentum with people registering for the vaccine in the 60 to 69 age cohort. The vaccines work, are effective and the benefits clearly vastly outweigh the risks. The important point is that every vaccine that one is offered is a safe vaccine. We do not have the capacity to provide a menu of vaccines for people to choose from.

We just do not have the number of vaccines to do that. We have to continue as programmed and that will continue to be the case. We have to get the vaccines out as quickly as we get them in. The HSE is examining the advice from NIAC and will come forward in the next number of days with its up-to-date plan on the operationalisation of some of that advice. Some of that is challenging, as the Deputy just referred to.

Fianna Fáil is the party which, throughout its lifetime, has credited itself for being the provider of homes for generations. The previous Government issued guidelines that prevented housing development outside the M50. The Mahon tribunal found that, in effect, the planning policy adopted by Governments facilitated the practice of payment for zoning. Now, new planning policy is effectively demanding dezoning of large amounts of serviced lands in every rural town and, indeed, within the M50. Should the Government pursue this Stalinist policy, it will not achieve housing targets. Not only that, but it will create an environment where payment for planning permissions will return. Low income families will be forced into ghettoes and everybody knows the social problems that will ensue.

The Taoiseach may not be aware that up to 80% of land in rural towns will be effectively dezoned during the current development plan formation process. In Wexford town alone, 600 acres of mostly serviced land will be effectively dezoned. Planners repeatedly say that commercial considerations are not planning considerations. They clearly live in a parallel universe, as does the Planning Regulator.

I ask the Taoiseach to confirm that, in order to ensure the Government meets its housing targets, the following will not happen in the formation of county development plans across the country. The first matter is that no serviced lands for housing with existing planning permissions will be effectively dezoned. The second is that no tiered zonings will be applied to existing serviced owned lands, such that planning departments of local authorities can arbitrarily decide what lands get planning permission and what lands do not.

One of the facts of the current situation with housing is the enormous amount of land that has been zoned and the number of planning permissions that have been granted but not acted on. There is no shortage of zoned land or projects that have received planning permission, but the projects have not started. There is a big issue there that needs to be dealt with from a housing provision perspective. Some on the building sites say that there is a viability issue. That needs to be worked out and examined.

There is a broader policy with regard to spatial planning, developing brownfield sites and making sure that we get compact development in cities and in towns so that we utilise existing services and avoid excessive suburban sprawl. That is an important planning consideration. In many of our cities and towns, we have schools with capacity. We have a range of services with capacity. It makes sense to target those areas for additional housing or the refurbishment of existing buildings to provide for residential units. Substantial funding has been provided by Government in the urban regeneration and development fund to enable those areas to have the infrastructural investment to enable housing and apartment developments to take place within cities and towns on a significant scale. There is also a significant investment in water infrastructure, which is vital and has been a barrier to some construction projects.

In respect of county development plans, we do not interfere in the decisions that councillors may take or that councils as a whole, taking advice from their officials, will take in respect of county development plans. I take the Deputy's point that if land is good and serviced, we do not want to take it out of commission either because we need to build as many houses as we possibly can to catch up. Covid-19 has reduced capacity with the lockdown and shutting down of construction, so we need to build on average at least between 33,000 and 35,000 houses a year, as per the ESRI reports, to deal with the housing crisis. We are intent, as a Government, on providing for social housing and also affordable housing, and to give every support that we can to young people to be able to buy their own homes and realise a legitimate aspiration.

The Deputy has raised another part of the equation which I mentioned at the start of my response. There is the issue of a hell of a lot of land which has received planning permission but where little has happened. That is a concern.

It should be a concern because the planning policies we have today mean that most of what is expected is not viable. That is why developers are not building. High densities have been pushed on them. There is no viability in the development and, therefore, planning permissions have been granted but buildings will not be built.

I am glad to hear the Taoiseach confirm that there are issues with the policy, particularly dezoning serviced sites. It would make absolutely no sense. I hope the Taoiseach can appreciate that doing that would very quickly - not eventually - drive up the price of the land that is left. Does the Taoiseach believe that dezoning almost 80% of the zoned land in Wexford would make the remaining lands cheaper? That is not the purpose it would serve. Dezoning serves to do one thing, which is to put us back in a position where we are hosting another Mahon tribunal.

It is utter madness. I ask the Taoiseach to confirm that he will instruct the Minister to ensure that fully serviced lands with planning permission, which was extended during Covid-19, is not dezoned.

The Minister is doing everything he possibly can regarding the provision of housing. He does not interfere in county development plans to that degree and it is important that there are demarcation lines there in terms of-----

It is the Government's policy.

-----the actual county development plans. There is a question that begs to be asked. A lot of land has been zoned over the years and a question must be asked about why that land is not being built on. I am not so sure it is all just about viability.

It is because Government policy is Stalinist.

No, it is not.

We have an ideologue as a planning regulator.

The Taoiseach without interruption, please.

Lots of people have submitted planning applications. Why go through the expense of all that if you did not think it was viable from day one? I am not saying there are not issues with viability in respect of apartment buildings and density. We are prepared to examine all that. However, there are enormous amounts of zoning in the country and planning permission has been granted.

Many other people are building.

Please, the time is up. I call Deputy Michael Healy-Rae, on behalf of the Rural Independent Group.

In my opinion, heaven's garden on earth is our national park in Killarney. It is Ireland's oldest national park and covers 26,000 acres of mountains, lakes, woodland and heath. The nucleus of the national park is 4,300 ha. Unfortunately, a fire started there last Friday and lasted for three days. Between 2,500 and 3,000 ha are believed to have been damaged or destroyed in the fire, including an active hen harrier habitat and the hunting grounds of three or more of the extremely rare birds which live in the park. That is devastating for the ecosystem. It is the worst fire in the national park since 1984.

I thank Kerry County Council's fire service for the excellent work it did. I also thank the staff of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, the Air Corps, the Garda, Civil Defence and local emergency groups. I also thank local volunteers, those people who came out in places which I adore, such as the Black Valley. I also thank all the other organisations and local volunteers from the tourism and boating sectors. All these people rallied together to try to save our national park.

In a proactive rather than reactionary way, I went on the record of the Dáil seeking more resources to be given to the NPWS to manage our park. I will explain why. We all know it is a beautiful place but the national park is a living thing I am passionate about. Examples of what we need are more wildlife rangers and more workers on the ground to do the maintenance and repairs and undertake the care the park needs. A national park is a living and breathing thing. We cannot look at it, say it is beautiful and we have thousands of acres of it and conclude that all is fine and the park will mind itself. It does not mind itself. I know the Taoiseach appreciates good things, including the countryside. I respectfully ask him, as the Head of Government, to tell his Ministers to put the additional resources we need in place.

No one in Kerry, least of all me, was impressed when Ministers tried to make a photo opportunity of running down to Kerry and standing on a rock in water trying to make out everything was great now that they were there. Why were they not there when I was looking for additional funding for the NPWS and when I said the number of wildlife rangers had fallen from ten or 12 to five and that at one time we had more than 100 people in total working in the national park? We will be down now to less than half that figure. We need resources and I am asking the Taoiseach to provide those resources.

I thank the Deputy for raising this serious issue. Without question, the devastation in Killarney National Park over the weekend, which we all saw on our television screens, was absolutely devastating. It was heartbreaking to see such a beautiful area impacted so severely. It is estimated that about 2,500 ha, which is close to half of the terrestrial area of the habitat, have been extensively damaged. As the Deputy said, that is having a severe impact on flora and fauna. More work is being done to quantify the extent of the damage to the national park.

I extend my deepest appreciation to the NPWS, Kerry fire service, the Air Corps, An Garda Síochána, Killarney Water Rescue and the local meitheal, all of whom worked tirelessly and to extraordinary levels to quench the fires at the weekend. They did heroic work and saved a lot. The cause of the fire is still under investigation and the NPWS will be following up with other authorities, including the Kerry fire service, to ascertain the circumstances surrounding the blaze. The fire spread very rapidly due to the prevailing weather conditions and the cost to wildlife is immeasurable. Thankfully, there was no loss to human life and we welcome that aspect of it.

Spontaneous fires are not a natural phenomenon in Ireland, so the circumstances regarding how this fire started need to be determined. There will be a comprehensive investigation in that regard. I accept the Deputy's point around the need for a strong, visible presence on the ground to discourage and prevent any unauthorised burning in the countryside and to protect the park. Funding for the NPWS has nearly doubled this year. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and the Minister of State with responsibility for heritage and electoral reform, Deputy Noonan, have decided to accelerate the recruitment of wildlife rangers and to increase the national intake from the recruitment campaign that is under way to 60 new wildlife rangers. That was announced yesterday, and it will mean a significant addition to the NPWS team. That will respond in a positive way to the issues raised by the Deputy.

It was important that the Minister and Minister of State went to the park yesterday to see the damage at first hand and also to pay tribute to all those involved in working to quench the fire. I thank the Department and Niall Ó Donnchú, with whom I was in constant contact throughout the weekend, for his commitment and the commitment of everybody in trying to deal with this situation. It is heartbreaking to see our beautiful national park in Killarney impacted so negatively and severely as a result of this fire.

When we get new wildlife rangers, and please God we will, I suggest that retired rangers who gave a lifetime of service be brought back in for a time to impart the wealth of knowledge they built up over decades of working in the national park to the new wildlife rangers. That is one suggestion. We also need to bring in scientifically qualified people to go through the burned areas. We must learn a lot about what we are going to do about the situation on the ground and scientific research must be done in that regard. We have young students suitably qualified in environmental courses in University College Cork, UCC, and the Institute of Technology Tralee, ITT. I ask that during the summer these people be given the experience of working in the burned areas of the national park researching those data and trying to help us in future.

It is believed this fire started late of an evening, which is worrying. We need to establish why this has become such a common occurrence. It is nearly as sure as night follows day that we will have fires at the end of a dry spell, in particular in the national park. This fire took a real hold.

I am very grateful that 60 wildlife rangers are coming, as the Taoiseach stated. As I told him, we have five wildlife rangers now. If we were given five, six or seven more from the 60 recruited nationally, we would be extremely grateful.

The Taoiseach should not give the impression that 60 wildlife rangers are coming to Kerry, because if that was the case I would be jumping for joy at this moment. I am sure the Taoiseach is not going to give us all 60. On one final point, we need more general operatives on the ground.

I will feed back the Deputy's comments to the Minister and Department. I think 60 is a significant increase. Funding for the NPWS doubled in the budget. This is an area in which I am interested. I want to support the Minister and Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, in respect of the NPWS to give it stronger capacity in future in terms of our wildlife, national parks and biodiversity.

The Deputy has made a very good suggestion on utilising this terrible event perhaps to provide for a specific research-type project that would involve supervised research students and seek to understand the impact of fires on habitat, but also mechanisms that we can develop to restore the habitat as quickly as we possibly can. That is a good idea and I certainly will talk to the Minister and Minister of State to see if something can be developed on that score.

It is not for me to comment on operational issues around recruitment and so on but it is always the case that the knowledge of the experienced person can be of value to the new recruit.