Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Human Rights

I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise this important issue, coming as it does after the debate we have just had during Question Time. It is very appropriate and I thank the Minister for being in the House to reply.

Over the past year, in particular, when the global community has been preoccupied with the fight against Covid-19, it is quite understandable that issues of a human-rights nature and atrocities, which take place under various headings throughout the globe, have to some extent gone unnoticed. They were certainly not noticed to the extent they would otherwise have been. It is important that Ireland uses its position as a member of the UN Security Council to highlight locations throughout the globe where these atrocities are taking place. They take place on a daily and hourly basis, and even as we speak, they continue. Reference was made during Question Time to the situations in Sudan, Ethiopia and throughout Africa and to the atrocities various organisations visit on helpless, poor and humble communities regularly.

Atrocities against women were referred to during the previous debate and I want to emphasise that point again. These atrocities continue with greater ferocity and rapidity, and the number of incidents increases daily. Rape and sexual abuse seem to be more commonplace than they ever were. The Minister acknowledged rape has always happened during the course of a war, much to our chagrin. I hope this is being taken into account and that decisions will be made in the UN which will overhaul the activities of the perpetrators in these situations.

I have only a short amount of time to refer to the ongoing difficulties in China, which were mentioned by other Members during Question Time, in Myanmar, which continue, and in other locations throughout the globe. These atrocities seem to continue with impunity because there is a belief among the perpetrators that there will be no response, and that there can be no response. They seek the use of the time available to them to do so under cover of other tragedies.

I ask the Minister, even if it means standing out and being different from everybody else, that we use the position we now have on the UN Security Council to highlight these atrocities, to bring public and international attention to them, and to make it clear that there is a way of punishing these people and that punishment will be meted out. By doing so, nobody will presume that they can pursue such atrocities with impunity. The International Criminal Court and the war crimes tribunals were referenced in the previous debate. It is imperative that this is done as a matter of urgency so as to give ample warning to the perpetrators of the kinds of atrocities spoken about over the last hour and a half in this House. They will continue unless something really dramatic is done, that is, to let it be known that there will be retribution and that it will be swift and severe. This has happened in the past, for example, in regard to Sierra Leone and the perpetrators there.

I thank Deputy Durkan for raising this important issue this evening. Today marks the tenth anniversary of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, sometimes known as the Istanbul Convention. It is a timely reminder of the impact of Covid-19, particularly regarding the increasing incidences of domestic violence against women during the pandemic. As Deputy Durkan is aware, women are to the fore in providing healthcare and support for those affected by the pandemic. Furthermore, in many countries, the economic downturn and closure of schools means that many girls are not returning to education, which undermines decades of progress in human rights and sustainable development goals. I am also very conscious that access to human-rights monitors, from the UN to civil society organisations, are severely curtailed because of the travel and other restrictions during the pandemic.

Ireland has been very active in promoting and protecting human rights at the United Nations through our current membership of the UN Security Council, the Human Rights Council in Geneva and the Third Committee of the General Assembly. Deputy Durkan will be aware that Ireland took up its seat on the UN Security Council on 1 January. Since then, we have been working across the full council agenda, which includes some 30 country and 20 thematic files. Promoting respect for human rights, accountability, and compliance with international law is central to our efforts.

In recent months, for example, we addressed the issues in Myanmar and Ethiopia. Myanmar has been a focus of the UN Security Council since the coup in February. During discussions at the council, Ireland has highlighted concerns for the protection of human rights, the humanitarian situation and the rule of law, in line with our values. We are also active at the Human Rights Council and support the work of the UN Secretary General and his special envoy on Myanmar.

On Ethiopia, Ireland has been very proactive in encouraging the council to focus on this crisis. We initiated council discussions on the deeply concerning humanitarian situation in Tigray in February and March. We led negotiations on a press statement on Ethiopia, which was adopted by the council on 22 April. This was the first time the council spoke publicly on the situation there. The statement called for unfettered humanitarian access in Tigray and expressed deep concern about human rights violations and, in particular, sexual violence against women and girls. We have raised concerns about human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law in a wide range of other contexts. We will continue to do so throughout the term on the council.

More broadly across the UN system, Ireland is a strong supporter of the work of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, who I have met on a number of occasions - in February and in March - at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. We delivered more than 20 statements on thematic and country-specific human rights situations including Myanmar, Syria, Iran, Yemen, South Sudan, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Eritrea, Israel, and the occupied Palestinian territory.

As I will be speaking immediately after this debate about the issue of Israel and Palestine, I will not cover that now. I am, however, very concerned about the deteriorating human rights situation in the occupied Palestinian territories and will speak about that in more detail. I am glad to be able to tell the House that I confirmed this evening that the UN Security Council will be discussing the deteriorating Israeli-Palestinian situation in a closed session tomorrow.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply. I ask that he utilise Ireland's position and his own to pursue the issues to which he has just referred in a way that makes it clear to the perpetrators that there is an end to all this, that there is retribution and that there will be justice for the victims in these cases. I did not refer to the antics of Boko Haram in Nigeria and the surrounding areas or the human rights abuses in China, but obviously we are well aware of them and the Minister himself referred to the latter. There are similar cases in other countries, some of which would claim to be democracies. Let us not forget the opposition leaders who are confined to prison as a result of speaking out. The erosion of democracy has continued in an alarming way, over the past 12 months in particular.

I know the Minister is committed to this issue but measures must be prioritised within the UN and the EU with a view to ensuring all such perpetrators recognise that, as and from now, there will be retribution and they will have to account for their activities. Previous similar perpetrators have ended up with long prison sentences from the courts in The Hague and there is this distinct possibility that they must go that route as well. That will soften their cough, as people used to say once upon a time, and focus their attention on the things they are doing now.

I hope it is clear from this question session that the protection of human rights is central to Irish foreign policy. The challenge, of course, is in being effective and not just saying the right things but actually being an agent for change in countries that are often a long way from here and from Europe. That is the real challenge. We must work out how to use Ireland's position within the European Union, the UN and the Security Council, as well as the bilateral relationships we have with both big and small countries, to advocate for and protect human rights for vulnerable populations, of which there are many. As a reminder of just how many vulnerable populations exist, there are currently 75 million displaced people living in refugee camps.

The last time Ireland was on the Security Council, it was looking at 12 or 13 files. There are now 30, so that number has increased almost threefold. The real challenge for me is finding a way to use the platforms, opportunities and relationships we have, and the influence we are lucky to have as a small but influential international country, to derive the most impact we can out of those opportunities to protect people. We have spoken a lot, and will speak even more, about how we can do that in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is in a very worrying place right now. I assure the Deputy that approach will continue to guide us on these issues.

Middle East

Apartheid is defined as "inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them". Human Rights Watch has published a key report on this issue, of which I am sure the Minister is aware. It follows reports from Israeli human rights organisations B'Tselem and Yesh Din, not to mentioned respected Palestinian human rights organisations and the concerns of the UN, that Israel is basically operating an apartheid state. This report refers to "'forcible transfer,' 'expropriation of landed property,' 'creation of separate reserves and ghettos,' and denial of the 'the right to leave and to return to their country, [and] the right to a nationality'". It is a damning report. Does the Minister agree with it?

Most people watching tonight's debate will be asking themselves what Israel needs to do for a country like Ireland, or any others, to start treating it as a normal state. According to this document from Human Rights Watch, Israel practices "the crimes of apartheid and persecution". It is a state that exists on division, racism and state violence and a state that uses subjugation as a weapon to oppress the Palestinian people. Over the past 36 hours, the Israel Defense Forces, IDF, have killed 30 civilians, including ten children. How can the Minister stand over that? What did he say to the Israeli ambassador today? What consequences will the Israeli state face for murdering those children today?

Something the Minister said earlier stuck with me. He said he was glad to be able to use the United Nations to talk about how this situation has worsened, but the reality is what we are seeing is not new. It has been going on for a long time. I was in Palestine as a human rights observer in 2014 and I witnessed all the things the other Deputies have spoken about and which we are seeing on the television. They were not new then either. This conflict and all that has gone with it, including the dispossession, the apartheid, the house demolitions, the expulsions and the denial of human rights, has been happening for a very long time. We are basically watching a deliberate inflicting on the Palestinians of a way of life that is designed to remove them from certain parts of the territory, from East Jerusalem and parts of the West Bank, to make way for settlers. This is not new and we need to act.

What is happening in Jerusalem is deeply disturbing. It is clearly an act of ethnic cleansing. As usual, the apartheid Israeli Government is using brutal force and acts of aggression to carry out this land grab. Not only is the Israeli Government using its rockets and artillery to slaughter innocent families in the Gaza Strip while the world looks on, it is also using medical apartheid to punish Palestinians with the roll-out of the vaccine. How many atrocities and war crimes must happen before the Israeli ambassador is expelled or sanctions are imposed on Israel? When will this Government use its place on the UN Security Council to stand up to the rogue state that is Israel? I hope that the Minister will not be twiddling his thumbs tomorrow on the UN Security Council or doffing his cap to the big global powers, because that is what we are doing and what we have been doing. It is just words and talk. We need action, sanctions and divestment. How much longer will the Government stand by and watch the brutality of apartheid Israel?

First, I restate my profound concern at the overall human rights situation in Israel and Palestine.

I am aware of the recent report from Human Rights Watch. As I stated earlier, the report is a lengthy and complex document and it is being reviewed by officials in my Department. Human Rights Watch is a respected NGO, and I value the role it and other civil society organisations referred to by Deputies, such as B'Tselem and Yesh Din, play.

There is no doubt that Israel's actions have violated Palestinian human rights. Israeli policy and practices, which discriminate against Palestinians, result in unequal and unfair treatment. More broadly, unilateral actions have undermined trust between Israel and Palestinians, which in turn undermines the viability of a two-state solution. That in my view is the only permanent, sustainable solution. I am deeply concerned by the violence of recent days in East Jerusalem. I condemn the launch of rockets from Gaza into Israel and the aggressive and disproportionate response by the Israeli Defence Forces in their attack on Gaza. These events are terrifying for civilians on both sides, and deeply tragic for the families who have lost loved ones or whose relatives have been injured. The number of child casualties is particularly shocking. Civilians on both sides deserve much better.

As I mentioned earlier in replying to questions, I met the Israeli ambassador this afternoon and conveyed my concerns to him in the strongest terms. In response to the escalating violence in East Jerusalem, Ireland yesterday co-sponsored a meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss the situation. At that closed meeting, we underlined that the Israeli actions in East Jerusalem and at the Al-Aqsa compound were not acceptable and were provocative and we called for Israel to comply with international law. The provocations and clashes in East Jerusalem, which led to many injuries at the holy site of Haram al-Sharif, or Temple Mount, are deeply worrying.

The approach of the Israeli authorities and security forces is not acceptable, and Israel must comply with international humanitarian law. Peaceful worshippers must be allowed to exercise their right to freedom of religion and to worship freely and without threats, violence or provocation in accordance with the status quo, especially during the holy month of Ramadan. The right to peaceful protest must be upheld for all, and the Israeli security forces must be held accountable for any acts against peaceful protesters. Ireland made these points in yesterday’s Security Council discussion. We will obviously also be participating very actively in tomorrow’s discussion, because things have developed significantly since yesterday.

I echo calls for all parties to refrain from violence and provocative acts, including the firing of rockets and incendiary devices from Gaza into Israel. I also raised the matter at the EU Foreign Affairs Council yesterday. I expressed my deep concern at the violence and threatened evictions in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood. The increase in evictions and demolitions across the occupied Palestinian territories is alarming and is no doubt contributing significantly to tension on the ground. Members will know I have been forthright in expressing my concerns regarding the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Ireland’s position on this issue is and will continue to be based on international law and Israel’s obligations as the occupying power under the Fourth Geneva Convention and the relevant resolutions passed in recent decades by the UN Security Council. Ireland has repeatedly made its position known at the Security Council, where the issue is discussed each month.

I thank the Minister.

Finally, our approach is rooted in the illegality of Israel’s occupation and the right of Palestinians to self-determination. Restrictions imposed on Palestinians undermine the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, a right which is at the heart of the two-state solution

The Minister will have a chance to come back in. There are four speakers with two minutes being shared between them, so each Deputy will have roughly 30 seconds. I call Deputy Mac Lochlainn.

In the 1980s, the Dunnes Stores' workers started confronting the apartheid regime then in power in South Africa. Ireland then led the way in taking on that regime. Here we are today, and we cannot even ban goods from the criminal, illegal settlements in the occupied territories. That is what we have become. From a giant in the 1980s, we have become a minnow. The challenge now is for the Minister to stand up to this apartheid state, as Ireland has done in the past.

Unfortunately, I find the Minister's words hollow. Expressing his concerns to the Israeli ambassador is a weak response, to say the least. His counterparts in the EU are weak as well. Consider what is happening with the EU and the deal with Israel regarding economic development. It is incredible. Israel is not a normal state. It is a racist state, and it exists on racism.

We have spoken about this issue many times. I reiterate that the Minister speaks very well on this issue, and I believe he is sincere. He has been very good at supporting Palestine with Irish aid, and in that way. The frustration for the rest of us comes from that activity seeming not being followed through with the strong action needed to confront this sort of situation. For example, if the Minister believes in a two-state solution, then why not recognise the state of Palestine? It seems the two-state solution may be dead and gone, and without recognition of the state of Palestine it will definitely be dead. I ask the Minister to even follow through on that aspect.

Our position on the UN Security Council gives us a platform to finally do what is right for the indigenous struggle in Palestine. We saw what happened in South Africa when the world stayed silent. This time, however, we have a chance to be on the right side of history and to do what is right by the millions of people who have been killed and forced out of their homes and who live under occupation. Until this State recognises the state of Palestine in the same way we recognise the state of Israel, we are complicit in this ethnic cleansing.

We are not complicit in this ethnic cleansing. I do not accept those terms, but we are not. We are standing up and speaking out against what is happening. We are and have been all day-----

We need actions.

The Deputy talks about actions-----

Sanctions and divestment.

The Deputy must understand how sanctions work. Ireland does not have the legal capacity to introduce sanctions. We have had this debate repeatedly regarding the Control of Economic Activity (Occupied Territories) Bill 2018. We cannot legally do that. The EU has competence in trade issues, and it is not up to Ireland to make its own decisions. I am not going to do something which is not legally sound in response to this issue. What I will do is try to build strong consensus where it matters and where that can be the basis of requiring and pressuring change.

That is exactly what we did last summer, by the way, when Ireland, with Luxembourg and others, led the EU position regarding a clear statement and warning to the Israeli Government that if it moved ahead with annexation of the Jordan Valley, then there would be significant consequences for its relationship with the EU. That was a significant contributing factor in Israel not going ahead with that annexation. That is what Ireland does. Rather than standing up here and saying what some people want to hear, I am interested in trying to save lives in cities like Gaza, where some of us have had the privilege to visit at different times. I have been there on multiple occasions.

That is what I am interested in.

It is not about who has been there the most.

The Deputy does not want to hear this, but I am interested in trying to use Ireland's privileged position on the UN Security Council, as we have been doing this evening, to try to get a debate tomorrow to ensure we can raise our concerns where it matters and where we are likely to get a real dividend, initially in respect of-----

It is not working. We need action.

-----a ceasefire and then a process that I hope in the months ahead-----

The Minister needs to advocate for action.

-----can protect the interests of both parties.

Housing Issues

During Covid-19, more than ever, we have all seen life-changing things happen. In that regard, a home is so important for people, and there is the saying that your home is your castle. In that context, I raise the qualifying thresholds for social housing, which are too low, especially in my area of Carlow. A review is being done, and I am here to ask the Minister of State about the status of that review. I would also like to know if we are looking at those thresholds realistically.

Ten years have passed since the latest review of income thresholds to qualify for the housing list. I recall, as a Senator, speaking with the Minister of State, Deputy English, at the time and then it was said that a housing review was being undertaken.

It is unacceptable that we have been waiting on this review for ten years. I believe that this is resulting in the exclusion of genuine people who should qualify for social housing. It is unacceptable that people who are trying to work and make ends meet are being told that they do not qualify for the housing waiting list. I have consistently raised the issue and have been told that it is being looked at. People in County Carlow are caught in limbo because they do not qualify under the social housing income threshold but they do not earn enough to afford a mortgage. There they are caught again. When one is not on the housing list, one does not qualify for HAP. For example, if someone is paying rent for accommodation of €12,000 or perhaps €13,000 per month - and rents in Carlow have soared in the past few years - he or she cannot save for a mortgage.

The Housing Agency Summary of Social Housing Assessments 2020, which was published earlier this year, states that the number of households in County Carlow that qualified for social housing supports by the local authority in 2020 was just 505, down from 519 in 2019, which is not a true reflection of the number of households that need social housing there, at least not if I can judge it from the conversations I have with people.

The Social Housing Assessment Regulations 2011 set the maximum net income limits for each local authority in different bands according to area, with income being defined and assessed according to a standard household means policy. There is an urgent need to finalise the review of these limits and to increase the income eligibility limit for social housing in County Carlow and most likely in other counties. Carlow currently has one of the lowest income thresholds in the entire country. The maximum net income for a single person is €25,000; for a couple with no children, it is €26,250; for one adult with one child, it is €25,625; for two adults with one child it is €26,875; and for two adults with more than one child, it is €27,500. This compares to a limit of €38,000 in County Kildare for two adults with one child and €39,000 for two adults with more than one child. Not only is it unrealistic to have such a marked difference between counties, the limits are a disincentive for opportunities that will increase household income.

The idea of welfare is to help people get on their feet, not to cut them to knees to qualify for unrealistic caps. That a difference in approximately €11,000 exists in income thresholds between counties Kildare and Carlow is unacceptable. The Minister of State is from the same area as me. The difference in income thresholds between counties Carlow and Kilkenny is €6,500. That is not right. Unless a person is on the local authority housing list, he or she will not get HAP, so the income threshold needs to be increased. We must ensure that this is done.

It is most important that action is taken on this issue. It is unacceptable. Everyone has seen hard times, but it is more important than ever that we give families the chance to qualify to go on the local authority housing list.

I acknowledge that this is an issue that affects my own constituency as well as 14 other local authorities in the country.

Applications for social housing support are assessed by the relevant local authority, in accordance with the eligibility and need criteria set down in section 20 of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009 and the associated Social Housing Assessment Regulations 2011, as amended. The 2011 regulations prescribe maximum net income limits for each local authority, in three different bands according to the area concerned. The income bands are expressed in terms of a maximum net income threshold for a single-person household, with an allowance of 5% for each additional adult household member, subject to a maximum allowance under this category of 10%, and separately an additional allowance of 2.5% for each child.

It is important to note that the limits introduced also reflected a blanket increase of €5,000 introduced prior to the new system coming into operation to broaden the base from which social housing tenants are drawn, both promoting sustainable communities and also providing a degree of future-proofing.

Given the cost to the State of providing social housing, it is considered prudent and fair to direct resources to those most in need of social housing support. The current income eligibility requirements generally achieve this, providing for a fair and equitable system of identifying those households facing the greatest challenge in meeting their accommodation needs from their own resources.

As part of the broader social housing reform agenda, a review of income eligibility for social housing supports in each local authority area has commenced. The review will have regard to current initiatives being brought forward in terms of affordability and cost rental and will be completed when the impacts of these parallel initiatives have been considered.

The programme for Government, Our Shared Future, clearly lays out our commitment to putting affordability at the heart of the housing system. The Government approved priority drafting of the affordable housing Bill 2020 on 22 December 2020, the general scheme of which was published on 20 January 2021. The Bill includes provisions to underpin three schemes delivering on the Government's commitment to prioritise the increased supply of affordable homes through affordable homes for purchase delivered by local authorities, a new affordable purchase shared equity scheme for private homes and the introduction of a new form of tenure in cost rental. The Bill was approved by Government last week and it is intended to bring the Bill before the Oireachtas in the very near future to allow for the commencement of the scheme this year.

It is very worrying that ten years have passed and there is still no date for the completion of the review. I really worry about that.

I do understand the new initiatives that have been introduced by the Government. I will provide the Minister of State of the example of the Rebuilding Ireland home loan. First-time buyers can apply for a Rebuilding Ireland home loan to purchase a new or second-hand property or build their own home. They can borrow up to 90% of the market value of the property. The maximum market value for properties in County Carlow is approximately €250,000. However, this year, just one Government-backed mortgage has been approved for a first-time buyer in County Carlow, out of four applications. I have seen the figures in other counties and the refusals are worrying.

Are the criteria right? Why is it that out of four applicants in County Carlow, one was approved? We are here promoting Rebuilding Ireland home loans. I am worried about this issue.

I wish to raise another concern. We all want to make sure that people can buy their own homes, and homes that are affordable. In particular, we want to ensure that those who do not qualify for the housing list are in the position to buy their own homes. We must ensure that the programme for Government enables people to buy affordable houses that are actually affordable. It is the same with the shared equity scheme. It is most important that we give the younger generation that opportunity to own their own homes. We have seen this past week the concerns raised about funds buying large housing estates. We cannot allow that to happen. We must ensure that the young people get the chance to benefit from affordable housing and shared equity schemes and can get on the local authority housing list. We must ensure that we get this right.

I know that there are some good initiatives coming up in the programme for Government and I welcome that, but we must ensure that there are no obstacles in the way and that we get it right.

As I have stated, affordability is at the heart of Government policy in the programme for Government. I also wish to confirm that the review of income thresholds has commenced. As I have outlined, no final recommendations will be made until the determination can be made on the impact of the parallel affordability initiatives.

I am aware that this affects 15 local authorities in total, namely, those in counties Carlow, Cavan, Clare, Donegal, Galway, Laois, Leitrim, Longford, Mayo, Monaghan, Offaly, Roscommon, Sligo, Tipperary and Westmeath. Like Deputy Murnane O'Connor, I have spoken with Carlow Chamber of Commerce and have met on a number of occasions with Carlow County Council because I know that it is a cause of serious concern in County Carlow, as I am sure it is in the other counties I have mentioned. Once the review is complete, it is our intention that a recommendation will be made. That is our commitment.

Vaccination Programme

I would like to thank the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, for coming to the House to reply to this issue. It is most disappointing that the Minister for Health is not present to take it, given that it concerns a health issue in Arklow in our constituency. I am disappointed and frustrated that he is not here to answer this question for the people of south Wicklow.

On 15 February 2021, the Minister for Health announced that a number of vaccination centres were going to be set up across the country.

Two of them were to be in County Wicklow, with one located in Greystones and the other in the Arklow Bay Hotel. The centre in Greystones has been operating for approximately five weeks. It has been offering some children's vaccinations and giving Covid vaccination appointments for three weeks' time. The centre in the Arklow Bay Hotel was to open on 11 May, which is today. Until now, people from Gorey, Arklow, Tinahely and throughout south Wicklow were travelling to Greystones to get their Covid vaccinations, while people from Greystones had to travel to Dublin. The plan was that the centre in the Arklow Bay Hotel would open today and people from south Wicklow and north County Wexford would access vaccinations there instead of having to travel to the north of County Wicklow.

As it transpired, the vaccination centre in Arklow did not open today. We have a situation where the Arklow Bay Hotel was contracted for a three-month period to provide vaccinations but now it seems it will not open and there will be a grand total of zero Covid vaccinations given there.

I have three questions for the Minister of State in this regard. First, how did this situation arise? Only last week, the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, was in Arklow to avail of a photo opportunity in the hotel. The story was all over the local newspapers. How are we in a situation where, less than one week later, the vaccination centre is not open, there was apparently no preparation for it to open, no one was told what was happening and we only found out today it is not opening? Second, what is the plan B for the residents of south Wicklow and north Wexford? Third, what will happen to people in the interim while a plan B is put in place?

I thank the Deputy for providing me with the opportunity, on behalf of the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, to update the House on the roll-out of the Covid-19 immunisation programme and vaccination centres. The vaccine programme is a key enabler of the reopening of society and the economy. It continues to progress, with more than 1.8 million doses administered overall. The programme has passed the milestone of the administration of 500,000 second doses and, this week, we expect to pass the milestones of having administered 1.5 million first doses and 2 million total doses. The plan is to distribute in the region of 250,000 to 270,000 vaccines to the system this week. Vaccines will go to GPs, hospital groups and vaccination centres.

A total of 38 HSE vaccination centres will operate on an eight-hour basis, seven days a week. This will increase to 12 hours a day when supply allows. These centres support the vaccination of the general population in a safe and efficient manner. Each centre varies in size and operating hours and has been selected based on population density, ease of access, transport and parking. There is at least one vaccination centre for each county. As of 5 May, there were 35 HSE vaccination centres open and operating. The 36th centre, in Carrick-on-Shannon, is planned to open on 12 May. There has been very positive feedback from members of the public who have accessed vaccination appointments in their local HSE vaccination centres in the past week.

The Arklow Bay Hotel Covid-19 vaccination centre was scheduled to open for the administration of vaccinations today. However, following last week's announcement on the reopening of services, the hotel has indicated it will return to operating as a hotel business. The result is that the facility will only be available to the HSE until the end of May. From a logistical perspective, it does not make sense to operate a Covid-19 vaccination centre at the facility for the short time involved. The HSE is actively exploring available alternative sites for a vaccination centre in the south Wicklow-north Wexford area. A number of sites are being examined by HSE Estates and Community Healthcare East, in partnership with South East Community Healthcare.

Pending agreement on a south Wicklow-north Wexford site, the HSE is maximising the capacity at the Aviva and Greystones vaccination centres. As staff numbers increase in the Aviva facility, the number of available appointments will rise by an additional 400 to a total of 3,000 daily when all 29 booths are open. The vaccination capacity at the Shoreline Greystones centre will be increased by moving from a 12-booth to a 15-booth model. The change to the physical infrastructure at the Greystones site is already complete. As more staff come on stream, the hours of operation will be extended to 12 hours per day. This will allow a total of 1,400 appointments to be offered daily. People in the Arklow area who are registered on the public portal will be offered appointments at the Shoreline centre in Greystones. Those in the north Wicklow area will be offered appointments in the Aviva centre. This has been the approach in recent week while awaiting the full opening of the Arklow Bay Hotel centre.

I acknowledge the efforts and flexibility of the HSE staff in ensuring the success to date of the roll-out of the vaccination programme. I thank them for their continued commitment to the programme.

I recognise this matter is not part of the Minister of State's remit and he has been left to explain this particular failing in the system. However, some of his response does not make sense. He stated the centre at the Arklow Bay Hotel was to open today but, because there are only three weeks left before the hotel returns to its usual business, it does not make logistical sense to have it operating for that period. I do not understand why the HSE is not using that particular facility for the next three weeks. The staff in Arklow were ready to go and had to be stood down. According to the statistics given by the Minister of State, using the centre for the next three weeks could potentially result in 12,000 to 15,000 people being vaccinated. That is surely a good thing and would give the HSE time to find a plan B. Will the Minister of State ask the HSE to look at using the Arklow Bay Hotel for the next three weeks? I assume the State has paid for a three-month contract, yet not a single Covid vaccination has been administered there. It seems like a wasted opportunity not to use the site for the next three weeks.

There are huge problems for people from south Wicklow in accessing the Greystones centre. There is limited public transport available and that is causing a lot of problems. It does not make sense to have people going to Greystones from Arklow and elsewhere in south Wicklow as well as from County Wexford while people in Greystones have to go to Dublin to get their vaccine. I have spoken to the National Transport Authority, NTA, about putting in place a bus service from south Wicklow and north Wexford to Greystones. Today, I telephoned Wexford Bus and was told the company is keen and eager to provide a service. I ask the Minister of State to contact the NTA to make sure public transport provision is put in place. That should have been done already. It is critical that it be provided now given there is no plan B for people from south Wicklow to get their vaccinations.

I understand the HSE has decided that it does not make sense from a logistical perspective to operate a Covid-19 vaccination centre at the Arklow facility for the short period involved. The vaccination roll-out programme continues to demonstrate agility and responsiveness to revisions in the advice on the use of vaccines and changes to vaccine delivery schedules. The public online registration system was launched on Thursday, 15 April, commencing with appointments for 65- to 69-year-olds before extending out to include all those aged 60 to 64. Last week saw the commencement of registrations on the portal system for the cohort aged 50 to 59. From Thursday, 13 May those aged 50 will be invited to register. To date, more than 34% of the adult population identified to receive a vaccine have received a first dose and almost 13% of the adult population are fully vaccinated. The programme remains on track and Ireland compares favourably with our European neighbours.

There is a great sense of optimism and relief at the numbers of people getting the vaccines. I got a text message this evening calling me for vaccination tomorrow. I will be leaving in the next 20 minutes to drive to Sligo to get my AstraZeneca vaccine at 9.30 in the morning. I am very happy and excited to be getting it. The Deputy will have seen the sense of relief and optimism among those who receive their vaccines.