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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 22 Jun 2021

Vol. 1009 No. 1

Ceisteanna - Questions

Cabinet Committees

Cathal Crowe


1. Deputy Cathal Crowe asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment last met; and when the next meeting is planned. [29523/21]

Pádraig O'Sullivan


2. Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment will next meet. [29604/21]

Alan Kelly


3. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment will next meet. [30928/21]

Rose Conway-Walsh


4. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment last met; and when it will next meet. [31792/21]

Bríd Smith


5. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment last met. [31404/21]

Paul Murphy


6. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment last met. [31406/21]

Mick Barry


7. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment last met. [33209/21]

Mick Barry


8. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on transport last met; and when it will next meet. [33550/21]

I propose to answer Questions Nos. 1 to 8, inclusive, together.

The Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment has been established and first met on 8 July 2020. It has met on a total of 13 occasions, most recently on 27 May. The next meeting is not yet scheduled. The members of the committee are the Taoiseach; the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment; the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, and Transport; the Minister for Finance; the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform; and the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media. Other Ministers or Ministers of State attend when required.

The Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment is responsible for issues relating to the economy and investment and had an initial focus last year on developing the July jobs stimulus. Most recently, it has overseen the development of the Government's economic recovery plan. This plan, which was launched on 1 June, sets out renewed supports, investments and policies for a new stage of recovery in order to support people back into work and bring about a sustainable rebuilding and renewal of our economy and society. The plan builds on the already unprecedented level of support provided by the Government to those impacted by the pandemic to date. The committee is also overseeing the ongoing review of the national development plan.

Issues relevant to the transport sector can arise, as required, at a number of Cabinet committees, most notably the Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment. Issues relevant to the transport sector can arise at other Cabinet committees, such as the Cabinet committee on environment and climate change, and the Cabinet committee on Northern Ireland and Brexit. Issues relating to transport are, of course, regularly discussed at full Cabinet meetings, where all formal decisions are made.

I thank the Taoiseach very much. I note that Deputy Cathal Crowe is not present and call Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan to speak now.

I welcome the recent publication of the national economic recovery plan, which outlines how the Government will spend almost €1 billion in funding that it has received from the EU. Specifically referring to my own constituency of Cork North-Central and the north side of Cork city, we have a number of investments that we are looking forward to over the coming years. I refer in particular to the urban regeneration and development fund announcement on the docklands, the recent Irish Rail announcement of €184 million, the potential movement on the Cork north ring road and, hopefully, a new elective hospital for the north side of Cork city. Can the Taoiseach clarify what investments he envisages in the north side of Cork city going forward?

The figures from EUROSTAT yesterday show that Ireland ranks 13th out of 27 EU countries on household living standards, falling behind Germany, Italy and Lithuania. That is where we really stand when the impact of multinationals on our GDP is stripped out. When it comes to living standards and what people can actually afford to buy to live their lives, Irish people are in fact less well-off than the EU average. That is what these figures are saying and is a reflection on the high prices here. One of the principal drivers of that is the record levels of rent and the high cost of buying a home. Childcare, obviously, is another such factor.

The social contract between the State and its people is that if one works hard, contributes and pays one's taxes, one will be able to afford such things as housing and childcare. The Economic Social and Research Institute has said we need to double our investment in housing. I ask the Taoiseach directly whether will this happen. The head of the National Treasury Management Agency, Conor O'Kelly, said yesterday that the Government can borrow millions of euro more to build homes for years to come as low interest rates will be locked in. This is his prediction. Does the Taoiseach agree with him?

Two questions arise as a result of all of this data coming in. First, will this be reflected in the review of the national development plan and in the budget of this year? Will we be able to put that amount of money forward for housing? Second, does the Taoiseach agree with the Tánaiste's recent comments that 40,000 homes have to be built each year, and will be?

Economic recovery in Mayo, the west and many other parts of the country relies on the roll-out of broadband. That is why we welcomed the €2.7 billion contract. There is a disconnect between the talk from the Government on the future of work and the potential of more remote working, and the reality on the ground in Mayo. In the first 18 months, only 4,378 homes and businesses have been reached out of a target of 115,000 and only 632 of these have actually been connected. Given that contractors were allowed to continue working on the roll-out over the past year, it is necessary for the Taoiseach to explain what has happened and why so little progress has been made. People in my constituency of Mayo want to know what is going on. For them to see such a shocking low number of connections is completely discouraging. There has not been an adequate explanation of the situation. What is the new agreed downgraded target for the connections this year? What penalties will National Broadband Ireland face for falling so far behind schedule? Does the Taoiseach share our concern? The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, has said he hopes to negotiate a new contract and he will invoke the change control procedure in the broadband contract. Can the Taoiseach tell us what is going on because we are very concerned at this point about the contract and all of the promises that have been made around broadband for rural Ireland?

I am getting concerned about the time being left for answers but I call Deputy Boyd Barrett to speak on behalf of Deputy Smith.

Yet again, I have to raise with the Taoiseach the plight of the taxi drivers. The so-called package that was announced by the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is worth about €300 per taxi driver, given that they have lost many thousands of euro in income in the past year and have carried ongoing costs. It goes nowhere near meeting the demands they made. They met with the Taoiseach and have written to him subsequently, but have received no direct response from him. They want to know whether that is the end of it now. Is that all they are getting? In particular, they are pleading around the issue of the extension of the ten-year rule to something like 15 years. Otherwise, many of these drivers who have lost a year's income and are carrying debts will have to replace their vehicles at the end of this year. They simply will not have the money to do so. Given that billions of euro have rightly been given to other industries, will the Taoiseach tell the taxi drivers that a measure that would actually cost nothing will be agreed? I refer to the extension of the ten-year rule to become a 15-year rule. This would remove a huge burden from their shoulders and would allow them to plan over the coming years while the recovery of their industry remains very uncertain.

Yesterday, the ESRI issued a report which refutes the key justification the Government has put forward for cutting the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, in September. For months we have had to listen to millionaire business owners, like Pat McDonagh of Supermac's, calling for cuts to the PUP and claiming it was so high it meant that workers were better off not working. Yesterday's ESRI report exposed that as being simply untrue. In fact, it highlighted the major damage that cutting the PUP would have in taking money out of the economy. It also referred to the cliff edge that is facing students come September. Those who usually rely on part-time work to pay their way through education will find it very difficult to get work. The Government is creating a cliff edge for them which will potentially force them out of third level education.

It is time to change course. Cutting the PUP, or trying to intimidate or shame those on the PUP with checkpoints or Government propaganda, is simply not on. Will the Taoiseach reconsider this position?

At a meeting this morning of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport and Communications, the Aer Lingus CEO, Ms Lynne Embleton, was asked whether she would keep 200 Cork workers on the books for ten weeks that Cork Airport is to be closed for runway repairs in September, October and November. She replied that at the time of the decision to announce the layoffs, there was uncertainty regarding the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, its continuance and what form that continuance would take. Given that there is no longer uncertainty about the EWSS, and given that it will be in place for the September to November period when Cork Airport will be shut, Ms Embleton and Aer Lingus no longer have an excuse not to keep those workers on the books.

Will the Taoiseach tell the House that the continued payment of the EWSS to Aer Lingus must now mean that plans to temporarily lay off 200 workers will be cancelled, and that the workers must remain on the books for that ten-week period?

I too raise the ESRI data published yesterday and urge the Taoiseach to form and launch an ambitious, thoughtful and far-reaching recovery package for young people and young workers because all the data reflect that they have been hardest hit and the damage will remain for some time. Social Justice Ireland, the OECD and many others have recognised this fact. The Government's efforts thus far in addressing these issues for younger people have been minimalist, to be polite about it. I urge the Taoiseach to be ambitious, thoughtful and expansive in the support and ambition shown for younger people and younger workers.

To respond to Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan, URDF funding will be substantial, at more than €300 million, for the docklands in Cork, which encompasses the south docks as well as the northern side. It will create employment overall in the region, which will be of great significance for the infrastructural works that will facilitate both residential and commercial developments in the Cork docklands of benefit to many people living in the northside of Cork.

The Irish Rail investment of €185 million in commuter rail, particularly in regard to the revamp of Kent Station and the Cobh line, from Glounthaune to Monard, will have significant impacts throughout the northside of Cork and the hinterland around the northside of Cork city and county. It will be a significant investment because it will leverage and incentivise further urban development along the rail track. The idea is that in order to get sustainable communities, there needs to be investment in a combination of public transport and housing. It will be very interesting to see how the development pans out. We are very keen that it will lead to significant economic development on the northside of Cork, and I believe this rail investment will in time come to be seen as very important.

On the new elective hospital, the HSE has made submissions in that regard and land on the northside of Cork has been identified as one potential location. It is important that we modernise healthcare facilities throughout the country, and a number of elective hospitals have been identified. Some work, negotiations and considerations are still under way with the HSE in the context of Sláintecare, whose framework covers this, and the Government will eventually be involved in the decision-making. The hospital will make for a very significant development in modernising our healthcare system and will make it more efficient in terms of elective care. It will take pressure off the trauma centres and the centres for excellence and ensure we can get through our waiting lists much more quickly than is currently the case at the major trauma centres.

To respond to Deputy Kelly, there are various broader metrics and standards. We are developing a well-being framework under the aegis of my Department to identify the characteristics and that will more broadly measure not just the economic metrics but also the broader quality of life in Ireland. This will be within an OECD framework. A similar model has been developed in New Zealand and elsewhere, and we are keen to adapt such a framework to Ireland. Of course, there has always been the issue between GDP and GNI in Ireland. Equally, however, the impact of foreign direct investment, FDI, in Ireland, when it is stripped out, is not accurately assessed either. It too can be understated, in regard to the quality of work and so on being provided and the historic added value of human capital, experience and expertise that have been garnered over the years, which have a consequential impact on indigenous industry, enterprise and research.

We still have much to do. As for housing, I think it is about capacity and delivery. We built about 20,000 houses last year and lost about 5,000 because of Covid. This year, it is estimated that the figure we build could be between 18,000 and 20,000, losing a further 5,000 or 6,000 because of Covid and the lockdown-----

Thank you, Taoiseach. I am afraid we have to move to the next set of questions.

We have not had any answers.

The ESRI has stated that we should, and need to, build up to 33,000 houses a year.

On the taxi question, if I may continue, a €6.5 million package was provided last week for taxi, hackney and limousine operators following my meetings with them and my engagement with the Minister for Transport. That involved €3 million for the continued waiver of vehicle licence fees in 2022, €2 million for a once-off motor tax refund scheme specifically for taxi and hackney operators and €1.5 million for a national car test, NCT, fee refund scheme. In addition to the supports for the small public service vehicle, SPSV, industry, the Government has maintained a wide-ranging programme of supports with broad eligibility criteria for individuals and businesses that have been adversely affected by Covid-19-----

We need to move to Question No. 9, I am afraid. We are out of time.

These supports include the PUP and enterprise support grants, many of which can be accessed by taxi drivers.


Why can we not have more time?

Members are proposing more time. If they want to take time from the second batch of questions, they can agree to do so. Is that agreed?

Yes. Let us hear the replies.

I had to race through the details of the taxi package. It is €6.5 million, not €300. Again, I am always open to engaging with the taxi drivers------

Will the Taoiseach consider an extension?

I have not seen the recent letter. I will follow up on that to see where it is in the system and activate that process. Deputies McAuliffe and Lahart and Senator Fitzpatrick were instrumental in organising that meeting. I will engage with them and Deputy Boyd Barrett to follow through on those issues.

The Government has decided to extend the pandemic unemployment payment from the previous midsummer date to September and beyond, into February of next year, albeit at reduced rates from September. The comments on students were not fair. The Government has been supportive of students in the context of the application of the pandemic unemployment payment in an unprecedented way. Ordinarily, students have never availed of social welfare payments while studying full time at college, yet the Government, in the context of the pandemic, supported students through the pandemic unemployment payment. It was unprecedented. It has been very helpful and supportive to students and their families and it is not fair to try to characterise it as anything but that. It is certainly not minimalist, as Deputy McDonald tried to suggest.

A great deal of populism is going on at the moment. Everybody wants to appeal to everybody and a by-election campaign is taking place, but there needs to be balance and perspective in regard to how we emerge from the pandemic and invest in new sectors. The most important thing we can do for young people is to invest in education, research and skills and reskilling, and to provide more places in further education, apprenticeships and third level.

We will do that. We did it last year and the economic recovery plan provides substantial investment for thousands of additional places, through SOLAS, the further education sector, third level and fourth level in terms of research. That is what we have to do as a country in terms of making sure we are competitive into the future as an economy. We have to invest in human capital and young people and give them the opportunity to gain additional qualifications to reskill, in terms of the retrofit programme, for example.

We need more apprenticeships in construction. Everyone talks about housing. We need more people who are skilled to build houses into the future. That human capacity has to be built up to get to the 30,000 or 40,000 capacity towards the end of the decade. That will be a key ingredient and is where resources have to be targeted in the future.

What about Cork Airport?

On Deputy Barry's question, I have not heard Ms Lynne Embleton committee's presentation. I am wary of taking on board fully what the Deputy said she said, because people often paraphrase what somebody said and it does not turn out to be exactly what the person said. However, the fact there is no uncertainty as to the continuance of the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, to the end of the year should facilitate the continuity in employment of the workers in the Cork location and in Shannon.

We are finished. Maybe we will take the three minutes lost from the final lot of questions, if that is okay with Members. We will go ahead now-----

No. There are four questions in each-----

We cannot keep making up the rules as we go along.

National Security Committee

Mary Lou McDonald


9. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach the membership and terms of reference of the National Security Committee chaired by the Secretary General of his Department. [29521/21]

Alan Kelly


10. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will provide a list of the membership of the National Security Committee; and when it last met. [29776/21]

James Lawless


11. Deputy James Lawless asked the Taoiseach the details of the National Security Committee. [33007/21]

Catherine Murphy


12. Deputy Catherine Murphy asked the Taoiseach the membership and terms of reference of the National Security Committee chaired by the Secretary General of his Department. [33042/21]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 9 to 12, inclusive, together.

The National Security Committee is chaired by the Secretary General to the Government and it comprises representatives at the highest level from the Departments of Justice, Defence, Foreign Affairs, the Environment, Climate and Communications and from An Garda Síochána and the Defence Forces. The secretariat to the Committee is provided by the National Security Analysis Centre in my Department.

The committee is concerned with ensuring that the Government and I are advised of high-level security issues and the responses to them, but it is not concerned with operational security matters.

As Taoiseach, I am briefed regularly by the Garda Commissioner and by relevant officials on the national and international security situation and on any individual incidents that may occur. The relevant Ministers also brief the Government on security issues within their remit as the need arises. There are also special arrangements in place to deal with particular circumstances that may arise, such as the recent cyber attack on the HSE’s IT systems.

Having regard to the confidential nature of the work of the committee, it is the long-standing practice not to disclose information about individual meetings. I can tell Deputies, however, that the committee generally meets a number of times a year and as required, and that it will continue to do so.

The committee’s focus is on the main threats to the State’s security and it has also addressed aspects of the State’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

In addition to its meetings, the members of the committee liaise on an ongoing basis to monitor developments that might have national security implications, in particular in the international arena.

Can the Taoiseach tell us what interaction the National Cyber Security Centre has with the work of the National Security Committee? Is the centre represented on the committee and did either advise the Taoiseach of high-level cybersecurity threats following Government formation last year? As the Taoiseach is aware, the budget and staffing of the National Cyber Security Centre came under significant scrutiny last month. Having failed to secure a preferred candidate for the role of director, this position is to be readvertised and the Minister awaits the outcome of a capacity review, although we know the centre employs just 29 people, despite its responsibilities.

The main role of the centre is to lead in the management of major cybersecurity incidences across Government, provide guidance and advice to citizens and business on major cybersecurity incidents and to develop strong international relationships in the global cybersecurity communities. Despite these significant responsibilities, the salary offered to the director is just half of what is paid to each of the Taoiseach's special advisers.

In fact, the Government's overall annual spend on special advisors matches the centre's annual operating budget. That is astonishing. I would like the Taoiseach to explain how that makes any sense. Evidence given last month at committee advised the centre's budget needs to be significantly increased. On that basis, can the Taoiseach advise us when the capacity review of the National Cyber Security Centre will be completed? Will the Government act quickly to provide for the additional resources we expect to be identified in that review?

The last Government had a Cabinet subcommittee on national security. Why was it dropped? Is it not even more pertinent now we have such a Cabinet subcommittee? We have the National Security Committee. I do not want the details, but I presume Ministers attend that. Can the Taoiseach tell us how often it meets and at what level?

Where are we at as regards the cyberattack on the HSE? Have we sourced where the attackers targeted or how they got into our systems? I do not want the Taoiseach to tell me here, but does he know? Does he know where the weaknesses were? I asked a whole range of questions regarding operating systems which were so out of date. Have we any information as regards where the source of the weakness was? I do not want to know what is, but I want to know whether the Taoiseach knows.

I ask about other future attacks. How prepared are we across all our public services with regard to attacks in which hackers could be based in Russia or eastern Europe? If an attack on our ESB or gas network was to happen, it would be serious. It is not beyond possibility given our health service was brought to its knees.

There are a number of reports about Russian submarines in Irish waters, operating off the west coast. Have we any capacity to monitor these? What do we do? A report in The Irish Times stated one third of fisheries patrols were cancelled by the naval service last year. A submission from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to the Commission on the Defence Forces stated Ireland had to rely on an EU ship to patrol our fishing zones for the first time.

Some four of our nine vessels are out of action, mostly due to low staffing. Basic pay, terms and conditions are a key problem for retention of such personnel in the Defence Forces. Recruitment, career progression and welfare of service families are also a major concern. The Defence Forces' strength have been hovering at just over 8,000 which is way below the 9,500 mentioned in the White Paper. Will this issue be addressed? Has it been looked at by the National Security Committee? When will the Defence Forces commission a report?

I call Deputy Devlin on behalf of Deputy Lawless.

I thank the Taoiseach for his reply to that question. Are there any plans to develop a national security strategy? The previous Government went to develop a national security strategy in 2019, with the process led by the national security analysis centre. I understand there was also a short consultation process undertaken at that time, over three weeks which included Christmas holidays. Were the results of that consultation ever published?

I note what the Taoiseach said on the confidentiality around this committee and I appreciate that. However, if there is an intention to publish the results of the consultation, can the Taoiseach outline that to us? With regard to the recent cyber attack, which the Taoiseach referred to in his response, both on the HSE and the Department of Health which obviously caused huge disruption right across the health system, has this National Security Committee met since that attack?

Given the impact of that cyberattack, does the Taoiseach believe a general review of the State's cyber and general security apparatus should be undertaken?

I wonder if we are unnecessarily secretive about this committee. In Germany, for example, the citizens get a briefing on the equivalent committee.

They know the full composition and what is deemed to be a threat. That helps people on the non-governmental side in terms of their level of preparedness. We know what the State knows are threats, like hostile states, hardline dissidents and international organised crime, but where are we in relation to things like energy, cyber and climate issues? What is being proactively done in relation to emerging threats? Is independent advice available and routinely got? Is there engagement with other states? Has it been costed? Very often that cost upfront is better than having to do things in response, as we are doing in relation to the cyberattack which may well have happened anyway.

A recent article by Conor Gallagher and Martin Wall sets out our vulnerability in terms of policing of our airspace. We rely on the Royal Air Force, RAF, to scramble jets to monitor our skies. I do not have an issue with that but it would be useful and reassuring for us to get an understanding. More needs to be said and we need to be more open. That is not to say we should expose ourselves in a way that makes us more vulnerable.

The national cybersecurity strategy sets out the strategic approach to protecting the State in the cybersecurity realm over the next five years, which I think Deputy McDonald raised. It sets out to develop our capacity and protect the State. In the last budget, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, tripled the budget for the National Cyber Security Centre, which is part of the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications. It manages the State's incident response process to cyberattacks and is responsible for a series of initiatives to improve the resilience of critical infrastructure and public sector ICT. It works closely with the Garda and the Defence Forces. It is currently engaged in a detailed risk assessment of critical infrastructure vulnerabilities in the State. It also provides public information on cybersecurity risks and best practice.

In the context of the recent cyberattack on the HSE, our overarching priority was to restore all medical services. It was extremely difficult on font-line workers. I pay the warmest of tributes to all staff in the HSE, including those in the war room who had to deal with the cyberattack and worked night and day, at great cost to themselves, to restore services. It had a significantly negative impact on services. Front-line staff on the hospital floor had to deal with the absence of scanning, patient records and so on. It was extremely difficult for all concerned and I thank them for their enormous efforts in maintaining treatments for patients.

A group comprising the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan; the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly; the Minister for Justice, Deputy Humphreys; the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O’Gorman; and the Minister of State with responsibility for communications and e-government, Deputy Ossian Smyth, was established to monitor and steer the cross-Government response to the cyberattack. It was supported in this by the National Security Analysis Centre, based in my Department. That is in keeping with the arrangements in the National Cyber Security Centre’s, NCSC, critical national incident response plan for managing incidents such as these. The technical response to the attack involved a strongly co-ordinated effort across Government working in co-operation with specialist private sector contractors. That dedicated work is ongoing and will continue until the systems are restored and functioning again.

The Garda national cybercrime bureau leads on the criminal investigation and will continue to work closely with the NCSC and the HSE on this. It is also working with international partners, given the nature of the crime involved. It is clear in the context of cyberattacks that one has to have a team-based response, both within the country across Departments and also across Europe. It is a collective effort. The UK was particularly helpful in providing cybersecurity expertise. People rallied to the call to help us. The Polish Government gave its experience because it had been the victim of a recent attack. This needs to be acknowledged.

On the national security committee and the analysis I have received, there are a number of high-level threats or potential threats to the State that we have to keep an eye on and that some Deputies have referenced, relating to international geopolitics and to right-ring extremists and extremists of one kind or another. Our security apparatus, our Defence Forces and our gardaí keep a vigilant eye on all of that.

Deputy Kelly asked about the status of the commission on the Defence Forces. That independent commission has been established and has a mandate to report within 12 months. I think Deputies are familiar with the terms of reference, which relate to the structure and size of the Defence Forces, encompassing capability structures and staffing, appropriate governance, high-level command and control, pay and allowance structures, recruitment, retention, career progression, leveraging the capabilities of the Reserve Defence Force, RDF, and its support to the permanent Defence Forces, making service in the RDF more attractive and, of course, arrangements for the effective defence of the country by land, air and sea.

The commission has invited submissions from individuals and organisations on issues relevant to its terms of reference. It received over 500 submissions, which it is analysing. It has been established as an independent body and has met with a broad stakeholder group, including the Defence Forces representative associations, commissioned and enlisted members of the Defence Forces and senior officials and personnel from my Department, the Defence Forces and other groups.

On Deputy Devlin's points, I will work on the publication of the consultations he referenced. As I have outlined in terms of the national security strategy, there was a framework for us to work on and through and, in terms of resources, to do what we can.

On Deputy Catherine Murphy's point, there is a balance between openness around national security policy and the Deputy's sense that we are overly secretive. We have to take on board the advice we receive on certain aspects of national security but I would be interested in continuing the discussion with the Deputy

National Risk Assessment

Alan Kelly


13. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the status of the National Risk Assessment for 2021. [29777/21]

James Lawless


14. Deputy James Lawless asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the National Risk Assessment. [33008/21]

Richard Boyd Barrett


15. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the status of the National Risk Assessment for 2021. [33398/21]

Paul Murphy


16. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the status of the National Risk Assessment for 2021. [33401/21]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 13 to 16, inclusive, together.

The purpose of the national risk assessment, NRA, is to identify major strategic risks to Ireland's well-being in consultation with stakeholders. Since it was first published in 2014, the national risk assessment has provided an overview of strategic risks and has drawn attention, at an early stage, to the importance of phenomena such as Brexit, housing shortages and pandemics. The process of preparing the assessment has been designed to ensure wide consultation across the full range of stakeholders. This involves the dissemination of a draft for public consultation and opportunities for stakeholders and Oireachtas Members to contribute to the development of the final version.

The national risk assessment is not intended to replace the detailed risk management and preparedness carried out by Departments and agencies, including by the National Emergency Co-ordination Centre. Rather, it is part of the overall risk management framework and is a tool to assist Departments and agencies to update existing or develop new mitigation plans.

The two years since the NRA was last published in 2019 have been particularly turbulent as a number of major risks have materialised. The Covid-19 pandemic has been the most significant of these, not least in the cost to health and life. Given the impact on resources of the pandemic crisis in 2020, the Department was not in a position to prepare an updated national risk assessment last year. However, work is well advanced on preparing an updated draft version this year, which I hope will be published for consultation shortly.

Covid will continue to be the biggest risk as we move forward but hospital overcrowding will also be a significant risk. We barely had a flu season in 2020 due to everything. Ensuring as many people as possible are vaccinated this winter will be critical.

I want to ask the Taoiseach about supply issues regarding the roll-out. What are we ordering for next year? I know decisions were to be made by the Cabinet today. It would be useful if the Taoiseach outlined them in his response. I know we had 4.9 million Pfizer doses ordered for next year and again for 2023. There were reports in various media saying that we would need to have booster shots in 2022 as, hopefully, we will get to a point where everyone in the country has been offered a vaccine and we are fully vaccinated by September or October at the latest. From a risk point of view, will the Taoiseach outline if we all need to get boosters? From what I am hearing, I suggest we probably do. What are the plans for that? Have we everything ordered for the end of this year and early next year? The CMO has indicated to NIAC that a booster campaign will potentially be needed. Will the Taoiseach please outline to us whether he believes there will be a need for a booster at the end of this year, starting with the elderly and working all the way through the various vulnerable groups and age cohorts? Have we purchased the vaccines? I know about Pfizer. I heard stories today about Janssen and Moderna. It would be useful if the Taoiseach outlined his thoughts on a booster campaign and what vaccines have been purchased.

On behalf of Deputy Lawless, I thank the Taoiseach for his response regarding the national risk assessment. The assessment began in 2014, there was another in 2019 and the most recent one was deferred.

From my assessment, I understand that the level of spending in Ireland on defence in 2019 was 0.2% of GDP. By my calculations, that is far too low, even by the standards of any comparable neutral country. In a recent budget there was a bigger annual increase for the military pensions than there was for day-to-day defence expenditure. Could the Taoiseach have this examined, perhaps by reference to other similar neutral countries for instance, Finland, Sweden and Austria? It is an important issue and we need to take account of it. Given that the assessment has not been done yet, as we are going to head into a new cycle it is important that we go in with a view to spending more to ensure the outcome is better.

The pandemic has clarified some of the key risks facing this country, and in some cases has created risks, so it is important that we respond. The Taoiseach has spoken a lot about higher education, placements and people getting qualifications. I repeatedly put to him a number of examples of where we are not doing what he is saying we are going to do. One thing the pandemic has done is created something of a mental health crisis for particular cohorts in society, yet we are chronically under capacity in terms of the supply of psychologists. We have 400 fewer psychologists than were identified as being required under A Vision for Change. Interestingly, in Sharing the Vision, the reference to psychologists has disappeared altogether because we have not been able to build the capacity. I pointed out to the Taoiseach that the difficulties are immense, in particular for working class people or people on low incomes in getting doctorates in psychology. There is a chronic lack of places for all types of psychology doctorates. The level of fees for doctorates is €15,000 a year, and in the case of educational and counselling psychology no funding at all is available. People are expected to do 30 months over three years of work and get no funding. People are working unpaid on placement and paying perhaps €50,000 over three years in fees. They are in dire straits. How exactly is that helping remove obstacles to higher education in a key area like mental health when we have 10,000 children, adolescents and adults waiting for psychological services?

I could make the same point about doctors and the obstacles being put in the way of graduate entry courses for doctors in terms of fees and the cost of concluding their doctorates, or student nurses who still face significant fees, which they should not have to pay when we need more nurses and who are being made to work unpaid on placements throughout their nurse training.

A month ago I raised in the Dáil the need for us to take action to slow down the spread of the Delta variant in Ireland, including mandatory hotel quarantine for travellers from Britain. I raised it again with the Taoiseach last week and he said the Government is not taking any risk in terms of the Delta variant. When I first raised it, we had a small number of cases of the Delta variant in Ireland but now one in five cases is the Delta variant. In Britain, they have slowed down and delayed the reopening. Belgium has now closed its borders to travellers from Britain in order to stop the spread of the Delta variant. We know that it is more transmissible, and that one dose of Pfizer or AstraZeneca is not very effective against it. We know that young people, who make up a majority of the staff in the hospitality sector, have overwhelmingly not been vaccinated. Does the Government still think that it is not taking any risks? Is it still planning to go ahead with the reopening of indoor hospitality on 5 July? Is the Government planning to do anything about the crucial issue of ventilation, which the experts have been screaming about for a year in terms of new regulations and funding to ensure there is proper ventilation in indoor hospitality and elsewhere?

In response to Deputy Kelly's question, the Government decided today to procure additional Moderna and Janssen vaccines for 2022. I can get the specific volumes for the Deputy. That is in addition to what we have already agreed in respect of Pfizer. This is all part of the European Union pre-purchase agreement framework for 2022 and 2023. The Health Emergency and Preparedness Response Authority, HERA, was established by Europe some time ago and has been preparing for the speedier manufacture and production of vaccines to deal with variants in the future, but also to have an expanded provision of vaccines for teenagers and children if authorised by the authorising authorities. NIAC is currently looking at a vaccination programme for teenagers and children. Suffice to say, it is our view that we need to purchase a sufficiency of vaccines to take us through 2022 and 2023. Europe has already reached a deal with Pfizer to provide 900 million vaccines over the next two years. We have opted in to those pre-purchase agreements and options. It is good pre-planning by Europe. We will add any surplus vaccines to our current support for COVAX and for other countries getting vaccinated. Europe is also providing €1 billion to support and build manufacturing capacity to develop vaccines on the African continent.

Deputy Devlin makes a very fair point on investment in the Defence Forces, which we are improving and increasing. He is correct about the consultations on the next cybersecurity strategy, which had to be delayed because of Covid-19, but it is resuming. I outlined earlier the work of the commission on the Defence Forces, which is very comprehensive and in line with the programme for Government. It will also feed into the pay review body, which is also provided for in the programme for Government.

In response to Deputy Boyd Barrett, I would argue that while some of the postgraduate programmes in medicine are much more expensive than the undergraduate programmes we provided additional places across the board at third level last year and we will do the same this year. We will do the same in further education and we will increase apprenticeship places as well.

In response to Deputy Paul Murphy's point, the Government has been and is concerned about the Delta variant. We have been monitoring it very carefully. We set up a special group within the Government comprising senior officials to keep a very close eye on the progress and trajectory of the variant.

The United Kingdom has slowed down, although its opening was far more advanced than our opening. It has not stopped what it has already done but it has certainly not gone ahead with nightclubs and the ending of social distancing, for example, which I always thought was a bit ambitious. It has stopped that because of the higher transmissibility of the Delta variant.

We are going to have to examine this. We will take the public health advice. The CMO and his team are examining this. The most recent data indicate a higher incidence of the Delta variant now in Ireland, which is a matter of significant concern. We have to look at this on a number of fronts in terms of our vaccination strategy and in terms of ventilation, absolutely. We will keep the whole reopening strategy under close review, as we always do, and, as we have said all along, everything we do is subject to ongoing public health advice.