Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

I welcome the fact there will be an opportunity to hear from the Minister for Health on the issue of the horrific turn of events at the maternity hospital in Cork.

In October 2018, the then Government announced an affordable housing fund worth €310 million to deliver 6,200 homes to rent or buy over a three-year period. In the Taoiseach's budget day speech at the time, he claimed this fund was a result of Fianna Fáil influence over the then Government. Will he also claim the fact the plan was an absolute failure? Zero affordable homes to rent or buy were delivered in 2019 or 2020. In response to a parliamentary question tabled by my colleague, Deputy Ó Broin, the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, has confirmed that only eight affordable homes to purchase will be delivered by this Government by the end of 2021. The Minister, who believes the property market is not out of control, will only have delivered eight genuinely affordable homes to buy this year. Is it any wonder we have a housing crisis? Níor chuir an tAire ar fáil ach ocht dteach inacmhainne sa bhliain seo. Is scannal é seo agus tá sé maslach dóibh siúd atá sáinnithe sa ghéarchéim tithíochta seo. Taispeánann sé go bhfuil an Rialtas ag teip ar thithíocht.

The Taoiseach has now been in government for 15 months. The fund to which I refer was in place before he took office. He has stated many times that housing will be his priority. He has stated he wants to give working people a chance to own their own homes. Is he seriously telling me this can actually be achieved by him when his Government will deliver only eight affordable homes to buy this year?

It seems that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael refuse to change. They simply recycle failed policies, the policies that got us into this mess in the first place. We see that in the plan of the Minister, Deputy O'Brien. It caters for the interests of big developers, large landowners and institutional investors first and foremost and not those in housing need. The Government will not invest enough money in delivering affordable homes through councils and approved housing bodies because those would be homes that people could actually buy. For the Taoiseach, it seems housing is all about the profits of the private sector and Government initiatives that are about lining the pockets of developers. He continues down that road relentlessly. He knows full well that so many people are stuck paying massive rents, forking out as much as €2,000 a month. I do not know how you put together a deposit for a house while paying that kind of rent. Now, through this parliamentary question, it has been confirmed that only eight genuinely affordable homes will be delivered this year. That is a slap in the face to every person who is in housing need throughout the State.

Does the Taoiseach accept that this scheme has been an utter failure? Can he explain how it is that the Government will only deliver eight affordable homes this year?

First of all, I reject the assertions of the Deputy in terms of the essence of this Government's housing policy, which is very much focused on affordable homes, contrary to the position of the party opposite on affordable housing in recent years because it has consistently opposed home ownership. It has voted against every affordability measure at every turn. In particular, it opposed the help-to-buy scheme that has helped 22,000 people to get onto the property market. It opposed more than 6,000 homes in Dublin City Council and Fingal County Council. Right across the board, it has opposed projects that had significant affordable components in those particular schemes.

From the perspective of the Government, we were not in government in 2018. We have been in government for 15 months and during those 15 months there have been two significant lockdowns. That has impacted in terms of house construction, but the Minister has spent that time putting in a legislative foundation in terms of the affordability Bill and other measures to ensure there are a number of schemes, which he has resourced - they are resourced in the Housing for All strategy - that will make thousands of affordable homes available in the coming years. State intervention will be provided for up to 36,000 affordable purchase homes in the context of that plan. That is in addition to 90,000 social homes and up to 18,000 cost rental homes. These are clear targets in the Housing for All strategy. That is backed up by €4 billion per annum in Government resources and has been approved by the Government.

On the legislative front, the Minister has put in the legislative underpinning for affordable homes. He has engaged with the local authorities on a local authority-led scheme and approach in terms of affordable homes and in terms of providing the necessary finance and supports to approved social housing bodies, which the Deputy referenced in her comments. I found that comment striking because the opposite is the case. We are resourcing the approved housing bodies very significantly in terms of their particular objective on the social housing front.

That initiative in 2018 did not lead to affordable home provision. We were not in an executive position to determine that or deliver it, but we are now and I am very focused on delivering on the commitments within the Housing for All strategy now that we are emerging from Covid-19 and progress is being made on a number of programmes. The first affordable homes will be developed in Boherboy in Cork this year and the engagement has happened with local authorities. The reform of the serviced sites initiative scheme is one example of that and there are a range of other measures, such as the legislation in terms of the delivery mechanisms that will be required to get affordable homes built in this country and to enable people to afford the cost of houses.

Níl aon amhras ach go bhfuil béim faoi leith ag an Aire ar thithe a chur ar fáil do dhaoine ionas go mbeidh siad in ann iad a cheannach ar phraghas réasúnta. Sin atá i gcroí lár pholasaithe an Rialtais ó thaobh chúrsaí tithíochta de. Beimid ag déanamh gach aon iarracht i bhfad níos mó tithe a thógáil i mbliana agus an bhliain seo chugainn ná mar a bhíomar in ann a dhéanamh le linn na paindéime. Níl aon amhras ach go raibh drochthionchar ag an víreas corónach ar an méid tithe a bhíomar in ann a thógáil i mbliana ach tá feabhas ag teacht ar an scéal lá ina dhiaidh lae.

The Taoiseach is big on numbers and targets but very low on delivery. That is the reality. He cannot spoof his way out of this one because I have a reply from his Minister, dated 21 September, which makes it clear that the sum total of eight affordable homes for purchase will be delivered by the end of this year - eight - at a time-----

We knew that.

The Taoiseach knew that. It is not a surprise to him.

It has not been a surprise all year.

I have to tell him it is a surprise to people-----

It is not, and it should not be to the Deputy.

-----who are looking to put a roof over their heads.

The Deputy has been involved in all the housing debates all year. She knows exactly the situation.

We have a housing emergency. The Taoiseach has said that housing policy will be front and centre and that he understands the depths of this emergency, when he clearly does not. He sat there in a state of self-satisfaction when no more than eight affordable homes will be delivered by the end of this year. I think that is scandalous. He ought to be ashamed that this is his record in government. Can he explain to people who wish to put an affordable roof over their heads-----

Time is up, Deputy McDonald, please.

-----how it is that only eight homes will be delivered by the end of this year? People deserve a full explanation and accountability for that.

With the greatest respect, what I think is scandalous is that the Deputy's party opposed 975 homes that were due to be built in Clondalkin, of which 20% were social housing. I think it is scandalous that her party opposed 500 homes in Tallaght, of which 80% would be social or affordable purchase homes. I think it is scandalous that her party opposed 278 homes in Swords. It voted against 1,200 social, affordable and private homes in Ballymastone and Donabate. That is what is scandalous - the hypocrisy that emanates from the Deputy and her party when it comes to housing provision in this country.

Eight affordable houses.

The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage has stated very clearly that he has put in place the building blocks for the development of----

Of eight houses.

-----a comprehensive affordable housing programme-----

Not many blocks.

-----including 36,000 affordable purchase homes under Housing for All. The first home scheme for first-time buyers will enable people to buy a home through government help to bridge the gap-----

Not 16,000, but eight.

-----between the finance they have and the cost of a home. The local authority affordable purchase scheme will make available homes at an average cost of €250,000 across the country. The reformed local authority home loan scheme, with reduced interest rates for all new applicants, will see more single people eligible for State-backed mortgages. The Minister has put in place the legislation. The Deputy knew he was doing that last year, so she should not come in here feigning surprise with statistics from a parliamentary question which she knew the answer to already. She knew that. This is about her exploiting the housing crisis for her ends; it is not about genuinely trying to help people-----

Well, fix it then.

-----who need housing. All she is about, and has consistently been about, is exploiting the housing crisis for her electoral gain.

A Cheann Comhairle, can I enquire and ask for your guidance, as Cathaoirleach in this House? The objective of this session is that questions are put to the Taoiseach and the Taoiseach attempts, to the best of his ability, however limited that might be-----

Thank you, Deputy. We are not going to have a debate.

-----to answer the questions.

We are not going to have a debate.

I do not believe that it-----

Please, Deputy.

-----ought to be for the Head of Government-----

Please, Deputy. You are bringing-----

-----to go off on a diversion-----

Deputy, you are bringing the House into disrepute. Please resume your seat.

I will resume my seat. What brings this House into disrepute is that kind of blather that we have had to listen to-----

No. This is an entirely political exchange.

-----with no answers to very important questions.

Please resume your seat, Deputy. I call Deputy Alan Kelly.

Just before I start, I wish to pay tribute to Eileen Rushe, who has sadly passed away. I send my condolences to her son, Seamus, and her other family. I wish to thank her for all her work in promoting the HPV vaccine. I also ask the Taoiseach, at this juncture, to look again at the issue of the CervicalCheck tribunal, which we know is not functioning. Many of us have raised the issue in this House.

Today I wish to raise an issue that many people in Ireland are concerned about. That concern has been multiplied by the interviews given by the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications today in relation to where we are going from an energy point of view. In multiple interviews this morning, he could not say that he could guarantee that the lights will stay on this winter. I ask the Taoiseach the same question. For everybody in Ireland watching now, in his reply, will he guarantee that the lights will stay on this winter? It is a fairly simple question.

I was in Brighton over the last few days at the Labour Party conference. I passed many fuel depots and saw cars queuing up for petrol. Obviously, because of Brexit, the UK has sleepwalked into a crisis. I am concerned that because of our lack of long-term planning, we are sleepwalking into a crisis here when it comes to energy. Anyone watching this debate today will be very worried. I must ask a number of questions. Is it because we have a dysfunctional system that EirGrid and the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications are not talking to one another? How is it that two gas-fired plants went down at the same time? We all know when to get our cars serviced. How come these two plants went down at the same time? It has never been explained. I asked the Tánaiste last week if heavy industry was being issued with stock requests to manage the grid. Amazingly, as the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, he did not know the answer. When IDA Ireland is attracting companies here, and I have often complimented it for the work it does, do we actually index the load requirements of the industry we are bringing in? Do we do a cost-benefit analysis, for want of a better phrase? We have had our debate on data centres and we know we have to manage that. Is the Department of Transport at the table in the conversations on the whole energy issue? We are expecting people to buy more electric vehicles in January. We want people to move to heat pumps. This will all increase load. On the one hand, we are asking them to do this, and on the other, we are saying we might not have enough electricity to be able to ensure they work. At the end of the day, the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, has warned that people will face higher energy costs. What are we going to do in order to help them?

Unlike the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications this morning, will the Taoiseach guarantee that the lights will stay on this coming winter? Can he explain how we got to this point and how short-termism got us here? Finally, what regulations is he going to bring in to ensure people will be able to afford to heat their homes this winter?

First of all, I thank the Deputy for the question, because it is a very important issue that is facing the people of the country today. As the Deputy outlined, it is the responsibility of the CRU and EirGrid to ensure the right balance of electricity supply and demand. When they briefed me and the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications on Monday night, they assured us that everything necessary is being done to guarantee supply. The generation capacity statement published by EirGrid today highlights two concerns, the first of which is short-term pressures this winter due primarily, as the Deputy has stated, to two gas-fired plants currently undergoing maintenance and going out. This has been complicated by Covid-related delays in terms of getting the actual maintenance work done because of people travelling into the country. However, we have been assured that these plants are due back in operation in October and November. That will ensure supply throughout this winter. Any short-term problems will be managed by working with large energy users who have their own back-up power supply. That answers the Deputy's question about the lights going out. The dramatic question is whether the lights will be on or off.

Answer it, then. It is not dramatic at all.

The basic pragmatic response to any short-term problems that arise will be demand management. We will work with large energy users that have their own back-up power supply. That is how that issue will be dealt with.

Secondly, there is a generation gap between 2022 and 2025 because planned capacity increases will not come on stream, while demand has increased more than expected. We have been assured by the CRU and EirGrid that they have plans in place to bridge that gap, including extending the operation of existing generators - that is going to have to happen - as well as providing temporary generation capacity and ensuring future auctions will be successful in bringing new gas-fired capacity into the system. There will also be new interconnectors to France and Britain, while battery facilities will help to store renewable energy. The CRU is also developing a new data centre connection policy to ensure their operation is aligned with supply. There will be greater obligations on the operators of data centres in respect of the issue.

The Government will be briefed regularly by the CRU and EirGrid on the roll-out of this work programme. We will not hesitate to take any further steps, such as emergency legislation or other intervention, if we are advised it is necessary. We will also continue to make clear, through the national development plan and the new climate action plan, that gas-fired generation capacity is an essential part of the energy transition. This will reinforce the confidence of investors in new capacity. These new steps will ensure that Ireland remains a location with reliable energy supplies which investors, businesses and households can have confidence in.

I also wish to state that we have a long track record of meeting the needs of foreign direct investment, and we will maintain that record. As we implement our ambitious renewable energy plans, including offshore wind, we will actually be in a very strong position by the end of the decade.

Finally, I wish to join Deputy Kelly in extending my condolences to the family of Eileen Rushe at this very difficult time for them. I thank Eileen for her extraordinary campaigning in relation to the HPV vaccine.

The Taoiseach should not worry about the dramatics. It is not about dramatics; it is just a very simple question. Will he give the public-----

I gave the answer.

The Taoiseach did not answer the question directly; he read a script. He knew this question was going to be asked this morning. Will he just give the public an assurance, a guarantee, that we will have enough energy this winter and that the lights will stay on? It is a very simple question. I am sick and tired of short-termism. We need to think about the longer term. What new technologies are being considered? Where is the plan for microgeneration? Where is the plan for battery storage technologies? We have only Turlough Hill. A plan for a battery storage project in my constituency, at Silvermines, is noted as one of national and European importance. Where are we going in regard to these technologies? We really need to know that the lights will stay on and that there is a long-term plan that will deal with the issue over the coming years because it seems like we have sleepwalked into this and it has just been sprung upon us at this moment. The public and businesses need assurance.

As Taoiseach, I am saying to the Deputy that the Government will ensure every effort will be made and that everything that needs to be done will be done. In respect of any short-term problems between now and when the two plants are back in operation in October, any issues that arise will be dealt with through demand management. That means working with large energy users that have back-up generators. That is how it will be dealt with. It will be dealt with calmly and pragmatically that way.

A key point I am making is that gas-fired generation capacity is an essential part of the energy transition. The last two options did not succeed in bringing players in. The next option will have to. A clear roadmap has to be laid out in respect of anybody interested in that.

On the issue of demand, data centres comprise just one aspect. There are two big changes in the world. One concerns data. There will be an ongoing need for data centres all around the globe but we must have conditions attached and obligations concerning prioritisation and so on.

The Taoiseach is way over time.

However, there has to be the long-term approach that the Deputy has identified, which we are committed to taking.

An féidir liom fanacht i mo shuí?

Is féidir leat fanacht i do shuí.

I want to return to the question of data centres and the threat posed by power cuts to thousands of households, including some of the most vulnerable people in the country, this coming winter and beyond. Those affected face losing their heating on freezing cold nights. As warned by Professor John FitzGerald, who heads up the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, there is potential for hypothermia among old people. This is not just to do with the limitation on energy; it has very much to do with the increased cost of electricity and the rising price of carbon.

To go back to the issue of the data centres, because it is very much connected to the overall problem we are having, I will relay some of the facts again. I am aware that Members were all listening to the debate this morning but I was not. There are currently 70 data centres operating in Ireland, which represents a 25% increase by comparison with 2020. Dublin has the largest number of data centres and has now become the hub for them in Europe. This represents an annual increase in demand of around 600 GW, the equivalent of 140,000 households per year being added to the grid. Would that it were 140,000 new homes per year; that would be marvellous. It is not a matter of new homes, however; it is a matter of data centres. Over 2020, we saw a 27% increase in gas demand from the data centres.

Let me quote some very representative bodies that look after our energy. EirGrid has stated:

The rate at which data centres are seeking to grow their load is unprecedented. Over the last 4 years we have seen annual increases in demand usage of around 600 GWh […] – equivalent to the addition of 140,000 households ...

According to EirGrid, the key demand is data centres, and the median demand predicts data centres accounting for 25% of all demand by 2030. The CRU has said that the types of projections EirGrid has given it indicate that electricity demand is to rise by between one third and 50% by 2030, primarily driven by the data centres. The centres are the primary driver and their impact is really exceptional. MaREI, the research institute, has stated that if data centres currently requesting connection are facilitated, Ireland's legal 2030 target of reducing economy-wide emissions by 51% would become effectively impossible to meet. Which is it: data centres or providing people with energy to heat their homes? Are we going to focus on data centres or reaching our climate targets?

Professor FitzGerald of the ESRI states the cost of interruptions to electricity supply in a modern society are huge – we all know that – but also states that if there is a significant interruption, the blackouts, if they occur, will have a much greater impact on households than on businesses. I put it to the Taoiseach that, in a context in which households are facing ever-increasing energy bills and carbon taxes, the continued granting of planning permission to energy-intensive data centres is being perceived as an unfair distribution of the costs and benefits. Not only is the Taoiseach failing on his climate targets and on giving people energy but he is also failing on just transition, which is supposed to be the key and cornerstone of everything his partners in government stand for. Which is it: data centres or heat, or data centres or climate targets?

It is not that crude a juxtaposition.

It is never that crude.

It is not that simple. That is an overly simplistic presentation. The CRU and EirGrid have statutory responsibility to ensure a balance between demand and supply. That is what this Oireachtas established. It provided the infrastructure. That said, the Government has met representatives of both organisations and it will be taking decisions in respect of immediate issues. Again, both bodies have advised there is a short- to medium-term risk to the security of electricity supply, and they have identified the main challenges, one being the lower-than-expected availability of some existing power stations. Two went down. Other challenges include anticipated new power stations not being developed as planned and expected growth in demand for electricity, including due to the growth of data centres. We are not ignoring the issue of data centres because, as I stated earlier, the CRU is currently undertaking a review and developing a new data centre connection policy to ensure the centres' operation is aligned with supply. There has not been any movement on data centres pending the outcome and conclusion of that review. The idea of simply saying data centres should be banned is not a measured response, nor is it tenable into the future.

The expected closure of power stations that make up approximately 25% of conventional electricity generation capacity is another factor. Hence, there will be a need to extend those by a year, if that is required, in the medium term. Short-term risks are reducing significantly because of the upcoming return to operation of the two key gas-fired stations. They are due back now. Their being down reduces supply. Any risks in this regard will not necessarily affect the supply of electricity to customers, particularly households.

On the energy cost side, the measures we take in the budget will have to address issues associated with the capacity of people, particularly low-income families, to meet fuel costs to try to protect them from the separate issue of the increase in energy costs across Europe, including here, because of the rebound of the economy after Covid-19, issues concerning supply from Russia and so on. There are many global issues affecting the oil supply and the cost of energy that we will obviously have to take into consideration in the budget to protect people in this regard.

The Government has met representatives of the CRU and EirGrid and has taken advice. I have not heard anyone on the Government benches deny the warnings from the CRU, EirGrid and MaREI or call them wrong, but there have been meetings with these bodies. Has the Taoiseach, as a leader, met representatives of Cloud Infrastructure Ireland, including former Labour Deputy Michael McCarthy, who heads up the lobbying group on behalf of the global corporations, towards which the Government's attitude is so servile that it says Ireland has a reputation for serving the interests of foreign direct investment companies?

The Government, however, does not have a great reputation of serving the interests of its own citizens. This country should not be used as the basis for the ever-expanding need of global citizens for data. We have to be measured in how we look after our own citizens. I see here a craven bending over of this and previous governments to the global corporations. At their behest the Government is willing to have heat cut off in homes this winter, to miss our climate emissions targets in 2030 and to destroy the reputation of this country in other ways in that it is not able to provide the energy needed to bring in other investment.

Are we listening to Jeff Bezos and Zuckerberg or are we listening to Joe and Josephine Soap who need the heat and need the price of electricity to be kept down?

First, we are intent and determined to meet our climate change targets by 2030. I brought in legislation which has been groundbreaking in that respect.

What did Michael McCarthy tell the Taoiseach?

This Government has done that, has passed its Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill and will be developing a climate action plan. We are very determined to meet those particular targets. We do not believe in cutting anyone’s heat off. The Deputy is deliberately creating this sort of divide and divisive approach to these issues.

I rest my case-----

I have not met Cloud Infrastructure Ireland, or whatever it is called-----

Has he met Michael McCarthy?

-----or Michael McCarthy in respect of this. I have not met him at all in respect of this.

Has this Government met him or been lobbied by him?

The Deputy asked a specific question.

I ask Deputy Smith to allow the Taoiseach to answer, please.

I want to make another point. The Deputy spoke about foreign direct investment and how we have a great record with it. She made a sort of throwaway remark as if it does not matter. I am not interested in any multinational company for the sake of the company itself but I am interested in the thousands of people that such companies employ in this country.

They are not employed in data centres.

Those are the people I am interested in. The problem with Deputy Smith at times is that she just dismisses that as if it is something that should never have happened in this country.

Data centres employ dozens and not thousands.

I know that you have an ideological view as to how economies and societies should be modelled.

He certainly does not.

I do not accord with that or agree with you.

Time is up, please.

The fact that there are thousands of people working in factories all over this country matters. There is an issue as to the growth of data itself and the power demands that arise from that-----

The time is up, Taoiseach.

-----but we are not going to change that by simply banning data centres forever. If every country adopted that approach we would not have the digital transformation that is happening------

We have 70 of them.

-----whether the Deputy likes it or not.

The time is up.

There are two fundamental drivers at the moment. We need to move to a green-based economy and there will be digital transformation with increased demands for the production and utilisation of data. That is a reality of the modern world. The challenge is to grow and develop an energy infrastructure that can deal with and meet that.

The time is up and I call Deputy Michael Collins now on behalf of the Rural Independent Group.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle. I have no doubt that after the easing of the Covid-19 pandemic that the biggest crisis that this country will have to deal with will be health and waiting lists. At the present time we are shockingly ill-prepared for the crisis which leaves many questions hanging over the head of the Minister for Health.

I ask the Taoiseach to look at his own county and the shambles that health is in at the moment in west Cork. Hundreds of people are going to the North for crisis operations as they have no other choice. During the summer, we saw the shocking handling of Bantry General Hospital, which is west Cork’s only general hospital and serves up to 90,000 people living in the area along with tens of thousands of visitors. Accident and emergency admissions were closed for 16 days due to a lack of staff. This was flagged three years prior to this but due to major incompetence on the part of the HSE it was not addressed until the HSE was pulled, dragging and screaming, through the streets of Bantry by the great people of west Cork in a public protest. The HSE then woke up and reopened the accident and emergency unit. During all this time, the Minister of Health was nowhere to be found. It looked, yet again, like another Minister was asleep at the wheel.

SouthDoc services in Castletownbere and Kinsale are now non-existent. Imagine the people of Ardgroom, Allihies, Adrigole, Urhan, Glengarriff, Castletownbere and Lauragh in south Kerry spending every night without a proper out-of-hours doctors service unless the day doctors in Castletownbere continue to work by night. It is shocking to ask anybody to work day and night. This is coupled with a crippling ambulance service in west Cork. The Castletownbere ambulance, which one of four in west Cork, now spends its nights in Kerry. The Clonakilty ambulance is now dubbed the Cork city ambulance. Every night during the week, the other two ambulances are in every other part of the country but west Cork. As a result, car accident victims in west Cork were recently left by the roadside for two hours and 45 minutes and two and a half hours, respectively, with gardaí and fire personnel to care for them.

We had a suspected stroke victim in Schull recently, where efforts were made to source an ambulance from another county. Another person near Skibbereen passed away while waiting for an ambulance from another county. This leaves ambulance staff, fire brigade staff, doctors, gardaí and suffering patients and families astonished as to how this is allowed to happen.

All of this has happened over the past two months on the Taoiseach’s watch. If this were not enough, CoAction has now decided to close its community houses in Castletownbere and to move loved ones with intellectual disabilities to Skibbereen and Bantry, which is nothing short of heartbreaking. Again, the excuse is lack of staffing. This is the same excuse that was used for Bantry hospital recently and for SouthDoc. Now, the most vulnerable in our community will have the doors in their community homes - some of whom are in their 50s, 60s and 70s - shut in their faces. This is another astonishing attack on the vulnerable people of west Cork.

Can the Taoiseach tell me why Bantry hospital was allowed to close its accident and emergency unit at the busiest time in August of this year, why there is no SouthDoc out-of-hours service in Castletownbere and Kinsale and why there are no ambulances in west Cork on most nights of the week? Can the Taoiseach personally intervene with CoAction to prevent many heartbreaks with the closure of the CoAction homes in Castletownbere? I may add that the funds for these homes were raised by local people.

First of all, the performance of the health service in the last year has been exceptional-----

-----in particular in dealing with Covid-19, both at the primary care level and at the acute level. Great credit is due to all involved, particularly all those who worked in west Cork in our ambulance service who did fantastic work in bringing vaccines to people who were bedridden and for mobility reasons could not leave.

They are badly underpaid.

I pay tribute also to those in the GP infrastructure across west Cork for the extraordinary work they did. Deputy Collins should have paid tribute to them for the outstanding service that the health service provided in the most difficult of times during a pandemic. It is easy to be condemning all of the time.

During August, I was very well aware of the Bantry situation. Deputy Christopher O’Sullivan contacted me on a daily basis. What had transpired was no surprise to anybody, in terms of personnel issues rather than policy. The Deputy would know that if he had bothered to ring the hospital or the HSE. They would have explained it to him. I believe they eventually spoke to the Deputy about this. Resources have been provided for Bantry General Hospital. There has been continued consistent investment in the hospital. The Minister for Health engaged with the issue. There were personnel issues in terms of availability which were beyond anyone’s control at that particular point in time, but they were dealt with by the HSE in the south west. Bantry hospital continues to play a very significant role for the entire hinterland because of the extent of west Cork right down to the Kerry border, to Castletownbere and so on. I have always been a strong supporter of and advocate for Bantry hospital. In my time as Minister for Health, we secured significant investment for that hospital and its identification as a unique type of hospital given its location and its need to service a very large rural hinterland.

The ambulance service is a national one, as the Deputy is aware. We will continue to work on any improvements that can be made to ensure provision of supply.

The Minister will be producing an action plan in respect of waiting lists both from now until the end of the year and right through to 2022. This is an enormous challenge because of the fact that we have had two lockdowns since March 2020 which impacted on the capacity of the acute system to get operations done. That is no surprise to anyone. Those challenges added to a list that had built up in the previous number of years. There will be an all-out effort, in the first instance, to reduce waiting times for people in respect of acute hospitals. Significant progress has been made on assessment of need; for example, in the past 12 months there has been a dramatic reduction by 91% in the number of children waiting for their assessments to be completed. The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, did great work there. I know she will happily work with CoAction on any issues that it has. I have also been a long-term advocate for and supporter of CoAction down through the years.

I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. I welcome his confirmation that the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, will work with us on the CoAction issue in Castletownbere. This is a very serious and upsetting issue for many of the families. I did not break the news for nearly two weeks until I got no reply from CoAction as to what is going on there and as to why they are closing the residential homes. For the Taoiseach's own information, I was well aware of what was going on at Bantry General Hospital.

The HSE was aware of it for three years. Does the Taoiseach not know that? The HSE knew for three years that this was coming. The consultants at the hospital have told us that. These are the facts.

I am well aware of what is going on in Bantry General Hospital; it is at my back door. I respect the staff who work there. I do not respect the way the HSE let down the people and left the hospital closed. The Taoiseach stated he knew about it but he was invited to the protest every day of the crisis. He should have stood with the people and that is where his voice should have been heard, but he failed the people. The same is true in the case of SouthDoc. The HSE reverted last week to say the issue relating to SouthDoc in Castletownbere had been resolved, but it lasted two days and collapsed. There is no SouthDoc service there by night.

There is a failure. The Taoiseach can praise the staff all he likes. There are great staff on the ground and the ambulance staff are second to none, but the bottom line is the problems in this country are at the top. There is overpaid management, with layers that collapse continually, and the Taoiseach is in denial. He is trying to say he knew about this issue every day of the week, but 16 days of admission were closed at a local hospital. If that had happened in Dublin, there would have been a national outcry. It would not have lasted even for hours.

Deputy, you are out of time.

When it was in west Cork, it was all right to talk about it for 16 days and to push it aside and say, "Ah sure, you don't understand what is going on, Deputy Collins." I certainly did know what was going on. I was told that myths were being spread about Bantry hospital and that it is a fact the doors were closed.

Time is up, Deputy.

The Taoiseach should open his eyes and wake up to what is happening. It is happening in his back yard, on his watch.

They are great phrases the Deputy uses and they are regulars, such as "asleep at the wheel", "on your watch"-----

It is a fact. The facts hurt.

Every time the Deputy contributes, that seems to be the standard terminology. The bottom line, in the context of Bantry hospital and the recruitment and replacement of personnel, is that management worked very quickly and got those issues resolved. We are not talking about a standard emergency department here, and the Deputy knows that. It should not be referred to as an emergency department because it is not an emergency department. A medical assessment and admission unit is what the Deputy is actually talking about-----

It is about getting admission to the hospital.

It is not an emergency department.

It is not all right. Let us not make it overly dramatic. That is an important point.

The Taoiseach was nowhere to be seen.

The hospital has, over the years, created a very important role. What is important is that we support what the hospital does well, and resource that-----

That is what we are committed to doing and I have intervened to ensure that happens, as has the Minister for Health. Because of the geography of that area-----

Thank you, Taoiseach.

-----the need for the hospital and the range of services it provides are obvious.

That concludes Leaders' Questions. We are way over time. I regret the fact so many Deputies completely disregard the allocated time.