Ceisteanna - Questions

Cabinet Committees

Alan Kelly

Question:

1. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on Government Co-ordination last met; and when it will next meet. [33146/21]

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

2. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on Government Co-ordination will next meet. [33378/21]

Mick Barry

Question:

3. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on Government Co-ordination will next meet. [34650/21]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

4. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on Government Co-ordination last met; and when it will next meet. [34684/21]

Paul Murphy

Question:

5. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on Government Co-ordination last met; and when it will next meet. [34687/21]

Bríd Smith

Question:

6. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on Government Co-ordination last met; and when it will next meet. [34689/21]

Dara Calleary

Question:

7. Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on Government Co-ordination is next due to meet. [34711/21]

Mick Barry

Question:

8. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on Government Co-ordination will next meet. [36565/21]

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

The Government co-ordination committee last met yesterday, 5 July, and its next meeting is scheduled for Monday, 12 July. The committee generally meets in advance of Government meetings to review the activity of Cabinet committees, review the agenda for that week’s Government meeting, discuss political priorities and review implementation of a specified element of the programme for Government. I am a member of the committee, with the Tánaiste and the leader of the Green Party. The Secretary General to the Government, my chief of staff and the chiefs of staff for the Tánaiste and the leader of the Green Party also sit in on meetings.

Has the co-ordination committee discussed antigen testing at all? The reason I specifically ask is this co-ordination committee co-ordinates things, I presume. It seems there is quite a divided and confused approach across the public service regarding antigen tests. As the Taoiseach knows, I have been raising this issue since last October, when we were still in Leinster House - it is so long ago. I know the issues with antigen testing but I also know the positives around it as part of a mix. After Christmas, the Department of Transport had no problem using these for Irish lorry drivers going to France. Last week, the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media used antigen testing for 4,000 people attending a pilot festival in Kilmainham and one person tested positive. The Minister for Health has now come up with another group to progress the use of antigen testing, which is an implementation group. The Taoiseach might tell us what it is going to be doing and when the remit of this group will be published. It is chaired by Professor Mary Horgan, the eminent president of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland, who said an app would be considered. Will the Taoiseach tell us if that is the case and if it will be rolled out? Many people will be asking why Denmark can make 500,000 antigen tests available every day but, after months of back and forth, we are still engaging with pilots.

Second, I thank the Taoiseach for his confirmation in regard to the national development plan, NDP, timelines. I take it this will not be published before the summer recess but it is a fairly significant publication, so I presume we will have a chance to debate the new NDP in the Dáil after it is published, and that it will be published in September. Will the Taoiseach commit that the whole issue of water and waste infrastructure, which is at crisis point in regard to future developments throughout the country, will have a large allocation as part of that publication?

This afternoon, the Dáil will discuss the actions necessary to tackle sexual, domestic and gender-based violence. I thank the Taoiseach for facilitating my request and agreeing to these statements. The annual Women's Aid impact report published last month highlighted a 43% increase in contact with its services last year. Safe Ireland’s 39 front-line service member organisations provided support to 25,000 women and children from March to December last year.

The programme for Government recognises the epidemic of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence and makes a number of welcome commitments to victims and their families. I understand that the review of how responsibility for domestic, sexual and gender-based violence is segmented across different Government agencies was completed in April but that it has not yet been brought to Cabinet. Similarly, the review of emergency accommodation provision for victims of domestic violence has been completed but has not yet been published. In addition to other commitments and outstanding reforms, including in education, the courts, social protection and in the workplace, the third national strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence is also due to commence next year. My concern and that of the sector is that in the absence of a single Department or unit within the Department of the Taoiseach holding overall responsibility for implementation of all strands of the strategy, the reforms and the progress so urgently needed simply cannot be delivered. Does the Taoiseach share these concerns? Has he discussed this matter with his partners in government?

We were told by the Department of Social Protection at the start of June that the State's new work experience programme would be unveiled by the end of June. We are now a week into July and the Department is saying that it will give the details in July. I do not think I am the only one who suspects that the Government might be holding back on the details until after 15 July and the summer recess, so that the new scheme cannot be critiqued or questioned on the floor of the Dáil. We all remember the notorious JobBridge scheme. Is the Government planning a new cheap labour scheme or a JobBridge 2.0? Is this the reason for the delay? A Minister is trying to co-ordinate two Departments so I think it is a relevant question.

I do not know if it is a matter of a lack of co-ordination or a lack of honesty from the Government when the Taoiseach says repeatedly that there will be no cliff edge for income supports for people in sectors impacted by the pandemic where they cannot earn a living or work at all. On the other hand, the same people who are in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, receive notice or announcements from the Department to the effect that the payment will be cut completely in September if the rate of the payment drops to €203. Taxi drivers told me this week that they were getting phone calls from the Department of Social Protection and Intreo offices telling them that they would have to sign off the PUP or go on to a jobseeker's payment. One replied that he is not a jobseeker but a taxi driver who cannot make a living because much of his business is still not operating. The official who called said that maybe he could be fixed up with a job on a building site. He is in his 60s. That is outrageous. That situation pertains for people in the arts, music, entertainment and so on. They are now being threatened with a cliff edge in respect of the PUP being pulled or pushed onto jobseekers' payments when they are still waiting for their sectors to fully recover. Will the Taoiseach explain this anomaly and please tell me that he will not pull the PUP rug from under people whose livelihoods or incomes are significantly down and will remain so for some time through no fault of their own?

Nearly two months after the cyberattack on the health service, would the co-ordination committee be an appropriate forum for the Department of Health to present its response plan to address the full consequences of that attack in order that the Taoiseach can provide the public with an update on the delays in treatment and administrative responses caused by this attack?

Has the co-ordination committee discussed the issue of ventilation? Last September, during Leaders' Questions, I said, "One crucial, immediate issue is that of ventilation." Since then, I and People Before Profit have consistently pushed for serious energy and effort to be given to ventilation in workplaces to help to combat Covid. It is ten months on from then. Last week, when I questioned the Tánaiste at the enterprise committee, he admitted that there are still no legally enforceable standards for ventilation. There are voluntary guidelines and protocols but there is no systematic monitoring, enforcement or investment. It is not just about indoor dining and hospitality; we are also talking about schools, universities and offices. Ventilation is a crucial part of any safe reopening. This is an airborne virus and that is why being outside is so much safer than being inside. We should have CO2 monitors in our workplaces and a threshold above which it is not safe for people to work in them. Will the Taoiseach act now, almost a year and a half into the pandemic, to ensure that there are proper, enforceable ventilation standards for all workforces, and put in the investment to make it happen?

Today, 24 people will lose their lives to cancer and 480 people will get cancer. In the past week, I have secured statistics from the HSE, which state that so far in 2021, the number of people referred from GPs to rapid access clinics for cancer is 153% of the figure for the same period last year. It is 126% of the same period in 2019, which is worrying. Consultants have stated that a tidal wave of advanced cancers will hit health services in the coming years as a result of the lack of timely diagnosis. The HSE has also stated that cancer services are still not operating at pre-Covid levels or capacity, which is incredible. When will cancer services be able to operate at 100% of pre-Covid capacity? What research is being done by the Government or NPHET with regard to the impact of the restrictions in the health service on people's health and lives where Covid is not involved?

I will deal with the questions in the order that they were tabled.

In response to Deputy Kelly, the Cabinet co-ordination committee does not have endless debates on every issue. Its primary focus is to clear the agenda for the Cabinet, to discuss general issues affecting Government and issues related to Covid. We have Cabinet sub-committees on Covid, as the Deputy knows, the economy, education, environment, housing and social issues. Antigen testing was on the Government agenda today and was referenced to at our meeting yesterday evening. In terms of decision-making, the Government approved the establishment of the group chaired by Mary Horgan to primarily advise Departments, agencies and other sectors of the economy about how best to deploy antigen testing in certain settings. As the Deputy pointed out, it is in use in meat factories. It has been in use in other sectors of the economy. A significant pilot by the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science is under way for third level and further education campuses with a view to facilitating and assisting the reopening of those facilities for the academic year in the autumn. The Minister was anxious put together a strong team, which he has now, to assist sectors, Departments and agencies in rolling out antigen testing where it can be of value and assistance as an additional tool to the range of other tools available for testing.

It is fair to say that our PCR testing is among the best in class. We are not where Denmark is because it is way ahead of most other European countries but our capacity for PCR testing is high now. The HSE helped with antigen testing in a number of locations as well. The indications are that we will need that capacity in the coming weeks, given the rise in Delta variant cases. We are witnessing a significant increase in the numbers coming forward for testing. In the past week in particular, the numbers coming forward were significantly ahead of the previous week. The key message that we have for people is that, if they have symptoms, they should please come forward to be tested by the HSE. That is extremely important.

We will have an opportunity later to make statements on the issue that Deputy McDonald raised.

Her points about emergency aid, supports for NGOs, in particular, and Women's Aid are issues that the Government is very seized of. We are anxious to make progress on them over the coming weeks and months, in addition to the work we have already done.

On Deputy Barry's point, Pathways to Work will be launched very shortly. It is not being held back because of the recess or any fear. The Minister is not in trepidation of any questions the Deputy might ask in respect of this but, clearly, the Deputy will have a different perspective from the Government or a Minister. Our key objective is to get young people back to work, to facilitate the long-term unemployed to return to work and to have a massive programme of investment in training places, apprenticeships and further and higher education as a key part of the economic recovery programme and the utilisation of recovery and resilience funds.

There will be no cliff in terms of impacts of supports. The Government has provided unprecedented and quite extraordinary supports, including the PUP and other supports such as the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS and the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS. The bottom line is that we will continue to work with different sectors and groups, as we have all along the way.

I am telling you what I have been told.

Indeed, the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin, has engaged with those in the arts and entertainment sector on a range of proposals they have brought forward and has responded generously to their suggestions. Likewise, we have met with members of a taxi group and those in that sector as well. Facilitation has been made to allow taxi drivers to earn so much. There is a threshold to facilitate that, which is important.

They are being taken from them in September.

On Deputy Calleary's point about the Cabinet co-ordination committee, it has been briefed on cybersecurity. The cybersecurity issue had an enormous negative impact on our health services, and especially on front-line workers. I pay a very warm tribute to everybody in administration, in the higher levels of the HSE and on the front line of our healthcare services who bore the brunt of an appalling criminal act that attacked our health services and patients but, above all, put enormous strain on our workers in health. I salute them for their commitment and persistence, particularly coming after the pandemic.

There are guidelines on ventilation and reports have been published. CO2 monitors are being put into schools across the board. That came out of a working group, which recommended they be put into our schools and it is happening.

On Deputy Tóibín's point, the reasons we are being cautious in reopening society - people attacked us earlier about our approach to indoor dining and hospitality - is to give space to the health services to restore non-Covid treatments and screening programmes and to facilitate diagnostics for non-Covid diseases, particularly cancer and diseases of the heart, liver and all the major organs of the body. We know there is a logjam because of Covid-19 and no other reason. That is one of the reasons we have to be very vigilant in keeping virus levels down. Once the virus infection rates go up again and hospitalisations rise, we retard the progress we have made to date in restoring health services.

Departmental Bodies

Alan Kelly

Question:

9. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work, role and staffing of the recently established social dialogue unit in his Department. [33147/21]

Bríd Smith

Question:

10. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Taoiseach when the new social dialogue unit of his Department will next meet. [33406/21]

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

11. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the social dialogue co-ordination unit of his Department. [34510/21]

Mick Barry

Question:

12. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach when the new social dialogue unit of his Department will next meet. [34651/21]

Dara Calleary

Question:

13. Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Taoiseach the details and remit of the recently established social dialogue unit in his Department. [34712/21]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

14. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the new social dialogue unit of his Department will next meet. [34839/21]

Paul Murphy

Question:

15. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach when the new social dialogue unit of his Department will next meet. [34842/21]

Mick Barry

Question:

16. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach when the new social dialogue unit of his Department will next meet. [36305/21]

Mick Barry

Question:

17. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach when the new social dialogue unit of his Department will next meet. [36566/21]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 9 to 17, inclusive, together.

As committed to in the programme for Government, the social dialogue unit has been established within the economic division of my Department to co-ordinate and support our approach to social dialogue. The unit's initial focus is on supporting, enhancing and engaging with the social partners, including through existing mechanisms such as the Labour Employer Economic Forum, LEEF, which deals with labour market issues. The LEEF helped to ensure useful discussions between the Government, employers and trade unions during the Covid-19 pandemic. I chaired the most recent plenary meeting yesterday, where, along with discussions on Covid-19 and our economic recovery, we discussed ways to strengthen social dialogue and the LEEF. There is significant work under way in the LEEF on issues such as introduction of statutory sick pay, remote working and a high-level review of collective bargaining. In addition, I recently met with representatives of the environmental, community and voluntary and farming and agriculture pillars, where we discussed how social dialogue can be strengthened as well as current issues of concern to those sectors.

The social dialogue unit is also currently mapping out existing the dialogue and consultation practices across government, which have evolved over the years. There are many different forums in place for these conversations including the national economic dialogue, the National Economic and Social Council, various sectoral groups and initiatives such as the Citizens' Assembly. There is also regular engagement with social partners by individual Departments and Ministers, of which I am very supportive. The unit is developing a set of principles which could support this type of ongoing social dialogue undertaken across specific issues. The unit is currently supported by three staff at principal officer, assistant principal, and higher executive officer level. Further resources over time will be provided as required as this work progresses. I will also point out that I met recently with fishers, along with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, in respect of the challenges facing the fishing industry.

I will ask about two priorities for this unit. A motion from my Labour Party colleague, inner-city Councillor Kevin Donoghue, was passed by Dublin City Council last night. It was a very interesting motion on something we have been pushing to have considered for some time. It called on Dublin City Council's chief executive to engage with trade unions representing council staff with a view to piloting and introducing a four-day working week. Will the social dialogue unit seriously look at this? We have learned much from Covid and the Labour Party believes this is something that should be seriously studied. It was passed unanimously by all the councillors last night. I do not know what the Taoiseach means by "of course". It was passed because it deserves to be considered, to be fair. It should be assessed very quickly and proceeded with to see if it can be implemented. We can look at it across various sectors. It might not suit every sector, obviously. I do not know why the Taoiseach is grinning.

I take it the Deputy does not mean the political sector. It would not suit politics-----

It certainly would not suit us.

-----but maybe we can dream on.

Is it something the Taoiseach would consider and this unit will look into? That is what I am asking. Does the Taoiseach endorse it? We all have to rebalance our lives after the pandemic.

The second issue, which I do not have time to dwell on, is that of a catch-up programme for schools. My colleagues, Deputy Ó Ríordáin and Senator Bacik, have been pushing this for some time. A significant amount of funding is going towards this in Britain and other countries. Will there be a catch-up programme for schoolchildren, given what has happened over the last year? In fairness, the Taoiseach has taken an interest in this previously.

There was a really shocking report in today's Irish Examiner newspaper that stated a complaint has been lodged with the Irish Prison Service by a female solicitor, who was instructed by a male prison officer in Clover Hill to remove her underwear if she wanted to visit her client because the underwire in her bra had set off the metal detector. The woman concerned has described how she felt extremely vulnerable and targeted as a woman, and how she felt humiliated to have her dignity so casually taken from her. So many things are wrong with this incident and, indeed, the Irish Prison Service's response to it. In my view, this is not just a run-of-the-mill complaint to be dealt with solely within normal procedures. It warrants a wider, and very full, review of prison culture and practices to ensure this type of degrading treatment of any woman never happens again. It was also reported that the woman in question later discovered a male colleague had previously visited the same client and despite the male colleague setting off the alarm three times, he was able to visit his client without any similar request being made of him. Does the Taoiseach know if the Minister for Justice has received a report from the Irish Prison Service on this complaint? What action has she taken to ensure policies and procedures are in place across all prison services to ensure no woman faces such degrading treatment ever again?

Can the Taoiseach confirm that the Government will meet the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and SIPTU this week to discuss issues relating to aviation? Can he confirm that the issue of the planned lay-off of hundreds of workers in Cork in September is on the agenda? Does he agree that Aer Lingus and other airport employers should not receive bucketloads of State cash to keep workers on the payroll and, at the same time, plan to take hundreds of workers in Cork off the payroll in September?

These workers must be kept on the payroll. Does the Taoiseach agree?

I welcome the motion from Dublin City Council but it is behind the Government on this issue in that the Government funded a €150,000 study by the Four-Day Week Ireland campaign last year. That study will be interesting, particularly in light of the Iceland report.

What role will young people's organisations play in the social dialogue unit? What focus will be on the issues of youth unemployment and education? Has the lived experience of young people during the pandemic, which has been particularly severe, featured in the discussions?

On the earlier question relating to dialogue, it is a fact that the Taoiseach met taxi drivers and that the Minister is engaged with musicians and entertainment people. The Taoiseach either does not know, which is dreadful, or he is being dishonest. According to the Department of Social Protection, the PUP will be withdrawn from those whose PUP rate is reduced on 7 September to €203 and they will be told to go on jobseeker's allowance or to sign off the PUP. Therefore, they cannot earn that extra bit of money to which the Taoiseach referred. They will be told they are unemployed or they can return to work and lose all supports when their industries will not have recovered. Will the Taoiseach please clarify the situation? These people have been writing to him on this issue. They want dialogue and they want answers.

Another group, comprising student nurses and midwives, including those in the disability and mental health sectors, were promised that they would get €100 per week for their placements. That is a miserable response to their demand to be properly paid when they are on placement, working on wards and so on, which in reality they have been doing for years, but particularly during the pandemic. I am informed this week by a student nurse that while the miserable €100 was paid to nurses and midwives, despite the promises, those working in disability and mental health care did not get their €100, a miserable amount. They should at least get what the Government promised them. I ask the Taoiseach to please look into that or to confirm if they will be paid the €100 they were promised. The Government should be giving them a hell of a lot more than that.

In response to Deputy Barry on the issue of JobBridge 2.0, the Taoiseach was coy about what he described as the pathways to work scheme. The language he used in respect of activating people who are unemployed, in particular young people, was strikingly reminiscent of the language used around JobBridge. Let us remind ourselves what "scambridge" was about. It involved tens of thousands of workers being grossly exploited. They were compelled to work for free for nine months in fear of losing their social welfare benefits. They were paid €1.25 per hour for jobs such as a sandwich artist or working for a national chain of garages, which employed almost 30 people, saving itself almost €400,000 in wages. There was widespread abuse in the public sector to get around the employment moratorium at the time. The Taoiseach should come out and say what he is proposing. What rate of pay is the Government planning for this new pathways to work scheme? Is the Government planning to make it compulsory? Would it not be far better to invest in education, including apprenticeship schemes and on-the-job training, and a green jobs programme to create the jobs that are needed to do the work for a rapid and just transition?

A lot of questions were asked. Deputy Kelly raised the decision unanimously agreed last evening by Dublin City Council. The Government has initiated a study in regard to this issue and will examine it. It will need to be examined in considerable detail because the implications are significant and dependent on the outcome of that evaluation in terms of productivity and what is best in the overall sense. We have learned a lot through remote working and the potential for blended working as we emerge from Covid and people return to the workplace, offices and so on and whether they can work in part at home and in part in the office. That has to bed down and we will have to evaluate how that works out over the next year. The wider issue of a four-day week versus a five-day week needs to be evaluated in terms of all of its impacts. The proposal is very popular. Most people would say, "Great". We have to be realistic about it as well. We will need to do the analysis on it instead of just agreeing with it straightaway and saying it is a great idea and let us all go for it. We have to work through it and identify the implications. Different sectors will have a different take on it. We have to look at it from a sectoral perspective as well. In terms of our competitiveness, it could lead to more productivity in some cases, but it may not do so in other cases. We will need to undertake a serious evaluation of it.

On the catch-up programme, the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, is committed to, and has already provided resources, for it. The view now is that it would probably be better to integrate it into the next school session, in particular the autumn session. The proposal is that in addition to the day-to-day provision of the curriculum, there would be a special catch-up programme for children who may have been left behind as a result of the experience of the pandemic and being out of school for so long. A variety of approaches will be adapted in response to that.

On Deputy McDonald's point, what happened is shocking and unacceptable. I was struck when I saw the headlines on that this morning. I will ask the Minister for Justice for a report on what transpired and the polices and practices of the Irish Prison Service. As I said, it is unacceptable and it should not have happened. I can understand why the solicitor in question would have felt her dignity was taken from her and felt undermined by the request. It is not good enough in any shape or form. It is all wrong and it needs to be addressed.

Regarding the aviation industry, which was raised by Deputy Barry, discussions were held yesterday with the Labour Employer Economic Forum, LEEF, on aviation. LEEF, working as part of the social dialogue, created a subgroup on aviation to look at the specific challenges facing the industry as a result of Covid-19. The challenges have been very severe in terms of the restrictions on travel. More than 90% of travel has been reduced as a result of Covid-19 and this has had a severe impact on airlines, airports and workers who are feeling it most desperately. That is why workers are anxious that we reopen travel as quickly as we possibly can. That is what most of the workers in aviation are saying to me, notwithstanding the challenge globally around the Delta variant and Covid. It is one of the reasons we are participating in the EU directive and framework around a digital Covid certificate. We are very conscious of the economic impact of the continued suppression of aviation on individuals, airports, airlines and on the country at large.

Did you discuss the people working on the boats?

The workers are who we are primarily concerned about. We had a discussion about the situation, and SIPTU in particular raised the issue in regard to the Cork workers and the need for intervention there. Government will reflect and work on that with the social partners.

Deputy Calleary is correct on the funding of the study in regard to a four-day week and social dialogue being a part of the overall examination of that issue. He made a good point regarding the lived experience of young people. I acknowledge there is more work to be done in that regard. There is also an issue around how we can get the voices of young people articulated in the social dialogue process. We did not meet the community and social pillar; we met the environmental pillar and the farming organisations. Macra na Feirme was part of the farming social dialogue, which was interesting. It was the one organisation among all we met that had a specific focus on young people. I will take the Deputy's views on board.

Regarding the questions put by Deputies Boyd Barrett and Paul Murphy, the Pathways to Work scheme is about investing in young people across the board and helping people to get skills for work and to reskill. I will check out the situation in respect in of nurses in the areas of disability and mental health.

Northern Ireland

Neale Richmond

Question:

18. Deputy Neale Richmond asked the Taoiseach when the shared island unit will host its next dialogue; and the topic that will be discussed at the dialogue. [34660/21]

Dara Calleary

Question:

19. Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the shared island unit in his Department. [34713/21]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 18 and 19 together. The Government's shared island initiative aims to harness the full potential of the Good Friday Agreement to enhance co-operation, connection and mutual understanding on the island, engaging with all communities and traditions to build consensus around a shared future. I established a shared island unit in my Department to act as a driver and co-ordinator of this whole-of-government initiative.

In budget 2021, the Government established the shared island fund, whereby €500 million in capital funding up to 2025 was committed to and ring-fenced for investment in North-South projects. We are making allocations from the fund to support delivery of our commitments and objectives on a shared island, as set out in the programme for Government. The Government will work with the Executive in Northern Ireland, the British Government and other partners to deliver cross-Border investments that enhance our shared island.

Progress to date includes the following measures. In April, phase 2 of the Ulster Canal restoration project was launched, enabled by an allocation of €6 million from the shared island fund and €5.6 million from the rural regeneration development fund. The shared island fund has also provided a further €1 million for development work on phase 3 of the project, which has now begun.

In April, the all-island strategic rail review was launched jointly by the Minister for Transport and the Northern Ireland Minister for Infrastructure. The review is an important step in implementing the Government's commitment to enhance connectivity on the island, including rail connectivity. Last week, on 29 June, I was joined by the Northern Ireland Minister for Infrastructure, Nichola Mallon, as I announced €3 million in Government funding from the shared island fund to progress work on the Narrow Water bridge to tender stage, with further funding to be allocated once the due diligence process has been completed.

On Monday, the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science and I announced that the Government will be investing €40 million from the shared island fund over five years in a new North-South research programme to support the deepening of links between higher education institutions, researchers and research communities on the island of Ireland. The Government will continue to develop and progress investment, policy and co-operation initiatives that contribute to the implementation of our objectives on a shared island as set out in the programme for Government.

To support development of a more ambitious agenda for co-operation and connection on the island, the shared island unit in my Department has commissioned a comprehensive research programme, working with the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, the National Economic and Social Council, the Irish Research Council and other partners. Research will be published through this year and next and will be focused on needs and opportunities to deepen co-operation across a range of economic, social and environmental domains.

I have initiated the shared island dialogue series to foster inclusive, constructive civic dialogue that engages all communities and traditions on key issues for our shared future. At the Labour Employer Economic Forum, LEEF, meeting yesterday it was also agreed to commence a work stream on shared island issues of interest for trade unions and employers within LEEF's remit of economic and employment issues relevant to the labour market. I addressed the first shared island dialogue with young people in November, which was on the theme of new generations and new voices on the Good Friday Agreement. Dialogues on climate and environment, civil society engagement, the equality agenda and economic recovery on the island have also been held this year, with participation by Government Ministers. The next shared island dialogue will be on health and will take place this week on Thursday, 8 July. These dialogues are bringing together hundreds of civic representatives and stakeholders in the different sectors, from across all regions, communities and traditions, to discuss how we can work together to build a shared future on the island. Recordings and reports are available.

I thank the Taoiseach for his very comprehensive response. There is obviously a very significant amount of work under way. I commend the Taoiseach on driving it forward. I also commend the team of the shared island unit. The Taoiseach announced the dialogue on health this week. Would it be worthwhile for the unit and the dialogue to consider the shared experience of Covid on the island and how our shared response could have been much better if there had been more co-operation across the island?

The Taoiseach will probably have missed the interview this morning with the doctor from Donegal who spoke about 50% of his patients who have had Covid showing symptoms of long Covid. Would it be worthwhile to carry out an all-island study on the consequences of long Covid and on how we can assist those who are suffering from symptoms of long Covid on an all-island basis?

I welcome the commitment to the Narrow Water bridge. The Taoiseach and I have been at many meetings at which it seemed like a pipe dream. I commend the Taoiseach on delivering and moving on that. Will the Taoiseach give me a commitment on the all-island rail review? Will the revised national development plan include a commitment to fund actions based on the findings of that review?

I have previously raised with the Taoiseach the need for the shared island unit's research funding model to be extended to include academics in both the North and the South who have a long history of shared work on policies relevant to the whole island. I welcome yesterday's announcement by the Taoiseach and the Minister, Deputy Harris, of a significant funding commitment for the North-South research programme. This is very welcome. I do not doubt that it will deepen existing links between researchers, academics and third level institutions across the island.

I will briefly raise the issue of the funding announced by the Taoiseach last week to progress work on the Narrow Water bridge. The €3 million in funding provided from the shared island fund will progress the project to tender stage with construction to begin in 2023. What funding has the shared island unit and the Government committed to the construction of the bridge? Will moneys be allocated in the Department's budgets for 2022 and 2023 for this next important phase of the project?

As I have said to the Taoiseach many times, an important component of developing co-operation on the island and, ultimately, achieving what many of us hope to achieve, the ending of partition and a united Ireland, is having a quality all-Ireland national health service with the capacity to deliver for people. We have to learn the best lessons from one another and address the deficiencies in different parts of the health service. One positive lesson we can take from the North relates to the recent decision to pay front-line healthcare workers a £500 bonus. For all the applause healthcare workers got down here, they did not get any reward. As I have mentioned, while student nurses in the UK's National Health Service get a bursary of £10,000, we expect them to work for effectively nothing while on placement. Front-line workers in the North are getting £500 as a reward.

I have highlighted a number of areas, such as the area of psychology, in which those trying to learn must pay excessive fees and, in many cases, receive no funding whatsoever when undertaking postgraduate courses. In the UK's National Health Service, PhDs and doctorates in areas such as psychology are funded in order to incentivise people to move into those areas. Should we not take the best lessons in order to move towards the sort of quality national health service we need?

Research into the shared experience of Covid on the island, how the response could be improved and what lessons can be learned from the interactions that took place at the public health level is certainly an idea on which we can follow up. I am conscious of the fact that the chief medical officer in the North was very much directed from London and that part of that operation fell under the UK public health service. Nonetheless, he and our own chief medical officer came to a very good understanding and a good memorandum of understanding was developed. Deputy Calleary's general point with regard to improvements is valid.

On the Deputy's comments regarding long Covid, I did hear that interview this morning. This again points to the need for people to be very careful. It is not just about hospitalisations and deaths, although they are key. It is also about the impact of Covid on people's long-term health. Our understanding of long Covid is evolving. We need to be careful, particularly in light of what is going on in the UK at the moment and the idea that we can open up completely with no consequences. That is something about which I have concerns. A study on that would be very worthwhile. I will pursue that with the relevant bodies with regard to its facilitation.

The Narrow Water bridge is a very welcome development. The €3 million is to take the project to tender stage. We do not want to pre-empt the tender. We want to get the best value for money.

Commitments are in the €500 million fund to fund subsequent stages of the Narrow Water Bridge proposal. We are committed to that, as we are to the research into the Ulster Canal. The research will undergo international peer review, based on the programme for research in third level institutions, PRTLI, model for research I initiated in a different era. It is to make sure it is fair and transparent, deals with issues that can be of mutual benefit to all people living on the island of Ireland, and draws the best from the research capacities, North and South.

On the health service, research is under way by the ESRI on primary care systems, North and South. It aims to understand the differences between the two health systems and how they can complement each other and it looks at the strengths and weaknesses of each.

Deputy Boyd Barrett commented on nursing. One of the great innovations in this country was to move to a nursing degree programme. I initiated it as the Minister for Health at the time. It was a sea change and transformative of the nursing profession and of a lot of postgraduate education. It involved huge State investment, which does not get acknowledged in all the Deputy's commentary on nursing.