Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Environmental Policy

I have been in discussion with fuel merchants in my constituency and beyond who are being adversely affected by fuel smuggling from the North. The fuel merchants I have spoken to employ people. They pay PRSI and their taxes, including carbon tax and VAT. They also enforce the smokeless fuel laws. However, they cannot compete with the selling of smoky fuel from the North, mainly due to the continually rising carbon taxes. The fuel merchants I have spoken to broadly welcome the recent announcement by the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to introduce a nationwide ban on smoky coal from next year and implement regulations designed to curb air pollution and its impact on public health. The proposed legislation will see smoke emission rates for manufactured solid fuel coal and coal-based products reduced and permitted sulphur content also reduced over time.

In order for these laws to be effective, the widespread selling of fuels mislabelled as low smoke has to be stopped. In addition, the 100,000 tonnes of coal coming in from the North every year cannot be permitted to continue. This coal has a retail value of approximately €56 million per annum. The main reason this is happening is that solid fuel in the North has a VAT rate of 5% compared with the 13.5% rate applied in the rest of Ireland. Also in the North, carbon tax is 0% whereas at present in the South the carbon tax on 1 tonne of coal is €87. This is set to increase to €107 per tonne next year and €126 per tonne the year after that, with further annual increases until 2030.

Based on the current rate of carbon tax, the €56 million worth of smuggled coal per annum represents a loss in VAT of more than €7.5 million and a loss in carbon tax of €8.7 million. This is a total of more than €16 million lost to the State. It also represents a loss of almost €40 million to the retailers. Based on the carbon tax rate from 2021 to 2025, if this continues the State will incur a further loss of €130 million and the loss to the retailers will be €188 million.

The issue is that there is little or no enforcement on the sale of fuel. There is no checking of mislabelling of goods. There are no efforts to curtail smuggling. The proposed nationwide ban on smoky coal is being introduced to improve our air quality. Without a dedicated task force to look at this issue and enforce the proper labelling of goods and the sale of smokeless fuel only, our air quality will not improve and, therefore, the health of our people will continue to be impacted negatively. There needs to be more education for the consumer on the health and environmental impact of smoky coal. There are also need to be fines for merchants caught trading in smoky coal and mislabelling products.

What we have is a significant loss of revenue to the State in VAT and carbon taxes. We have fuel retailers struggling to try to run legitimate businesses. They pay their taxes, pay wages to employees and pay PRSI. They are seeing their businesses going down the Swanee. It means that reaching our carbon targets becomes more difficult. It is contrary to the Government's objectives of the clean air strategy. The findings of the Ricardo report, which estimates the cost of burning smoky coal at €722 million, continue to apply. There needs to be proper monitoring and enforcement of the rules on the sale of solid fuel.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter.

Therefore, VAT is chargeable on the solid fuel carbon tax element of fuel products.

Where a business in Northern Ireland sells goods and arranges the transport of those goods to a consumer in Ireland, such sales of fuel products are referred to as intra-community distance sales. Intra-community distance sales of fuel products from Northern Ireland to a consumer in a member state are subject to VAT in the member state of destination of the supply, which would be Ireland if the customer is based in the State. In such cases, the supplier of those goods is required to register, subject to a threshold, in the State and to account for VAT on those supplies.

I am not talking about somebody who gets into their car, drives across the Border and buys a few bags of coal. Nobody is concerned about that. That cross-Border trade has happened over the years. We are talking about advertisements, mainly on social media, inviting people to ring a number, pay online and get even tonnes of fuel delivered to their door on a pallet. No carbon tax or VAT is paid on this. The prices being charged indicate it could not be because they greatly undercut those the merchants here have to charge in order to pay carbon tax and VAT.

This has been going on for years and will only get worse as the price of fuel rises due to the increase in carbon tax. Something has to be done. We are fooling ourselves if we think we are helping the environment by ignoring this. Would it not be possible to give the Revenue Commissioners additional powers and resources to track and trace all solid fuel supplied on the Irish market? Some of that which is coming in is not what it is advertised to be and it needs to be checked.

I suggest also providing a dedicated freephone number to allow customers and retailers to report suspected carbon tax and VAT evasion. Fuel merchants frequently do not know who they are supposed to report this issue to and are passed from pillar to post as to whose responsibility it is, and nothing is done about it. There has to be an increase in the penalties associated with non-payment of solid fuel carbon tax. Moreover, there should be incentives to encourage customers to switch from using carbon-intensive solid fuel to low-carbon, low-smoke solid fuel.

It is the poorest people in society who pay carbon tax because they cannot afford to bulk-buy fuel and have it delivered across the Border. They are the people who buy a couple of bags of fuel and pay carbon tax, yet they are the people who can least afford to do so.

The points the Deputy made are very valid. Officials from Revenue will be watching this debate and will take note of what she said about social media and other forms of advertising campaigns that are impacting on fuel suppliers in Cavan-Monaghan, the part of the country the Deputy represents, which are impacting on suppliers on this side of the Border. Her points are fair ones. Revenue carries out enforcement operations and cross-Border multi-agency enforcement operations. It does this in conjunction with local authorities. These operations have been impacted by Covid and there have been fewer of them but, as we all know, we are, thankfully, moving into a better space in that regard. Compliance-checking will have to be ramped up.

On reporting, the Deputy mentioned a freephone number. As I understand it, a service that allows people to report issues to Revenue is available in any regard, that is, not one dedicated specifically to the issue the Deputy raised but to report any issues relating to tax evasion or non-compliance. It is open to anybody. Anyone anywhere can report an issue to Revenue, as the Deputy is encouraging people to do.

The points the Deputy raised are legitimate and valid. The feedback from this debate will go to Revenue and it will continue to monitor and seek to enforce compliance.

Schools Building Projects

I thank the Minister for her attendance. I apologise that I have to raise this issue but I am disappointed with what is going on at the Department. I will outline the history of the school in question, about which the Minister and I had a Zoom meeting a few months ago. It is Holy Trinity school which has been there for 230 years. It is under the patronage of Church of Ireland and if it was anything but a Church of Ireland school, this would not be going on. The site in Altamount Street, Westport, was formerly owned by the Sisters of Mercy and was selected for this new school. It was the wish of the Sisters of Mercy that this school would be used by Holy Trinity. The school is currently located on Newport Road but this site is not fit for purpose.

The school is a credit to the community. Four or five of the Mayo GAA panel are former pupils, yet there are very few sporting facilities. After the school had been provided by the Sisters of Mercy, there was a row as to who would take over the site. I was involved in that. Neither the county council nor the Department of Education would take it over, but eventually, the Department took it over because there were problems with not doing so. We were delighted when we heard that had finally happened.

All of a sudden, the co-educational school appeared and, for whatever reason, the Department, which had a site for the school in the town of Westport, tried to build it in the middle of a housing estate, in an old social welfare office, which was never going to happen. Then, out of nowhere, the Department decided it would put the two schools together on a site that is capable of having only one school. I hope that in respect of Mayo County Council and the planning office, it will not again be the case that there is one rule for the general public and another for the State. The State should obey the law as the general public does. This site is not capable of housing two schools.

The Holy Trinity school was included in the schools programme. When the previous Minister, Deputy McHugh, was in office, he texted me to say the school was going ahead, that the co-educational school would not be with it and that the Holy Trinity school was about to begin construction. I have a copy of the text message on my phone. To be fair to Holy Trinity, the management, the principal, the teachers and the 230 pupils, the time has come for the school to be built. We have the site and the school is in the programme. The site is going into dereliction and is affecting the town of Westport, which is very proud of its tradition with Tidy Towns and very little dereliction. Across from the site, a new library is to be built.

I accept that the Minister inherited this problem but she might address my questions. When will Holy Trinity get its school? Who made the decision to have the co-educational school co-located with the Holy Trinity school, given that it was never in the game in the first instance?

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter, which has been raised consistently with me by Deputy Calleary and Senator Chambers. As Deputy Ring outlined, I met a deputation from the school and was happy to do so. Nevertheless, this Topical Issue matter gives me an opportunity to set out for the House the position with regard to Holy Trinity National School.

Holy Trinity is a co-educational primary school under Church of Ireland patronage. The school had an enrolment of 63 pupils in the 2020-21 school year and a staffing of one principal, two mainstream class teachers and one special education teaching post. It is currently situated on a patron-owned site in a permanent building in the heart of Westport, comprising three classrooms and ancillary accommodation.

The Department has a largescale and ambitious plan for the roll-out of school building projects under the national development plan, NDP, and as part of Project Ireland 2040. The continuation of construction work on school building projects during the lockdown period in early 2021 was an important enabler in facilitating the delivery of our school building programme. Significant increased funding is provided to the school sector capital investment programme under the NDP. My Department’s focus for capital investment in recent years has been the provision of new permanent school places to keep pace with demographic demand and this is expected to continue to be a driver of capital investment in the short to medium term.

During the NDP period from 2018 to 2020, 526 building projects were completed under the large-scale capital programme and the additional school accommodation scheme. These projects delivered in excess of 48,000 school places, including permanent accommodation for 229 special classes, and additional capacity for 67 classrooms in 14 special schools throughout the country. The Department has a significant existing pipeline of projects to be delivered over the coming years to meet capacity needs. This is managed under the large-scale capital programme and the additional school accommodation scheme. This will make significant progress in providing modern energy-efficient school facilities and the replacement of temporary accommodation.

A building project to construct a new school building for Holy Trinity National School is included in the Department’s large-scale capital programme. It is the Department’s intention, subject to securing the usual statutory consents, that the school will be relocated to a Minister-owned site at Altamont Street, Westport. In line with the public spending code, to maximise the use of State assets consideration must be given to the potential to master-plan the Altamont Street site to accommodate a second primary school. This proposal has required engagement with the local authority and my Department is now in the process of finalising its assessment of this potential solution. This assessment is also incorporating current projections of future school place requirements, which were recently updated.

These projections of future school place demand are modelled using data from a range of sources, including school enrolments, attendance patterns and information on current and planned residential development activity. The Department also works closely with the National Council for Special Education in anticipating requirements for special education needs provision. Once the full assessment process is complete, my Department will be in further contact with the patron bodies of the schools in question, including Holy Trinity National School.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. I assure him that my Department is concerned, at all times, with ensuring the accommodation needs of schools in Westport are appropriately advanced.

I thank the Minister for her reply. I will not get into a row with her today but natural justice should apply here. This school was involved first. I know a previous Minister - not the current Minister - had more interest in co-education schools than the other schools. We have great schools in Westport and the only school that needs to be relocated is Holy Trinity National School. The co-education group has come in since and it seems to be getting priority now. The Holy Trinity school has lobbied and raised funding while working in difficult conditions, and it is not being treated right by the Department.

I have nothing against co-education. In fact, I hope a site is obtained for the co-education school. There are plenty of derelict sites in Westport that could be used for it but I do not see why it should be located on the Holy Trinity school site. I was very much involved in this process. If the Minister knew the trouble her Department and Mayo County Council have caused because neither of them wanted to take over the site. We had to get the Minister at the time and the county council to sit down together and reach an agreement on who would take over the site. The site was always for Holy Trinity National School. The co-education school was not in the picture in regard to that site. The Department brought it into the picture. That decision was taken by a previous Minister. As usual, the real government are the officials who will not put their names on the ballot paper. It is the Minister and I who represent the Holy Trinity National School and the people of Westport and Kerry. We are, therefore, the people who should be making the decisions. I would like the Minister to make the decision that Holy Trinity National School will open on that site as quickly as possible. If the council wishes to break the planning laws, I will deal with that in another forum.

It is my primary objective, at all times, that all schools are treated fairly in the process. The Deputy will accept that I have an obligation under the public spending code to maximise the use of State assets. Therefore, consideration must be given to the master plan. I am obliged to do that but I hear very clearly the case the Deputy makes. I assure him that the Department is in consultation with the local authority and is in the process of finalising the assessment of the potential and possibilities on the site. The assessment includes the present and future potential needs of schools.

I confirm that fairness is at the core of all that I seek to achieve in this regard. I wish to ensure the needs of children in Westport are suitably addressed. I assure the Deputy that I am giving full consideration to what needs to be done. That is my intention and that of my officials, whose paramount interest is that the needs of all will be served. We are working on this matter and will continue to do so. As soon as we have expedited all issues in regard to potential opportunities on the site and the needs of schools, which is most important, we will bring it to completion. I am conscious of the issues raised by the Deputy and they have been raised, as I said previously, by others in the constituency.

School Accommodation

A matter has arisen this morning in regard to the Christian Brothers Primary School in Wexford, which had a publicised closure to students this week because of a Covid outbreak. I emphasise the closure was for students because they were asked not to come to school, although all teachers and staff attended at school in order to provide online learning. This has generated poor publicity. The principal, Vicky Barron, and the board of management have the full support of the children and families whose health and safety they have prioritised. It is incumbent on the Department to address the fact that the HSE has not been forthcoming with the support required to prevent this action being taken. There are questions to be answered, primarily for the parents, teachers and the principal. Who is in charge? Who is responsible for a situation like this?

I will move on. The issue I raise today relates to the Christian Brothers post-primary school in New Ross, which wrote to the Department in 2017 requesting that the physical education, PE, needs of the children be addressed. There are more than 403 pupils in the school and they have no PE hall. Since 2017, the principal, Pat Rossiter, has received just two responses from the Department. The first was on 12 December 2017 from the then Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton, stating that the application had been received. On 9 February 2018, a letter was received from the then Minister of State, Deputy Paul Kehoe, acknowledging that the sports hall application had been received.

I have been involved in this matter since my election 18 or 20 months ago and I have received the same reply to my correspondence several times. The most recent reply I received was in September. It states:

Under the national development plan, increased funding has been provided for the school sector capital investment programme. This funding allows for a continued focus on the provision of new permanent school places to keep pace with demographic demand and also provide for an additional focus on the refurbishment of existing school buildings to include the building and modernisation of PE facilities in post primary schools.

In addition, the national development plan states:

The strengthened focus on refurbishment of existing school stock will have different strands to include those listed ... a PE build and modernisation programme will enable students in post-primary schools to have access to appropriate facilities to support PE provision, particularly also in the context of the roll-out of PE as a leaving-certificate subject. Enhanced and modernised PE facilities will also provide important amenities for local communities.

That is brilliant but I hope it will be delivered. When will the Minister provide funding for a PE classroom or hall for the CBS Secondary School, New Ross, to ensure the school can provide its students with the learning facilities required to support PE as a leaving certificate subject? I ask her to make a statement on the matter. I also ask her to come to County Wexford in the near future and visit the Christian Brothers school in New Ross so that the principal, Pat Rossiter, can make that case to her and show her around.

It would not be appropriate for me, as the Deputy will appreciate, to comment directly on an individual school and that is not the purpose of the Topical Issue matter.

It has always been and will continue to be the case that we will operate on the back of full public health advice. All the operations within our schools, from their reopening and the measures we put in place at that time, have been under the direction of public health authorities, and those authorities continue to make judgments on the operation of our schools where there may be a Covid-19 incident. It was a request of school management and leaders that no individual school would have that burden of responsibility placed upon it. We are required to follow public health advice as it is issued.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter, which has also been raised with me on a consistent basis by the Minister of State, Deputy James Browne. Today gives me an opportunity to clarify the position of the Department of Education's plans for upgrading school buildings, including the Christian Brothers Secondary School, New Ross. The Deputy may be aware that CBS New Ross is a Catholic, co-educational post-primary school in New Ross with an enrolment in 2020 of 397 pupils. This represents an increase of 24% in the past five years.

I am pleased to inform the Deputy that my Department approved capital funding for CBS New Ross in 2019 for the provision of four general classrooms, including one general classroom prefab replacement, one special education teaching room, one design and communication graphics room and one home economics room. This project was devolved to the school authorities for delivery and they were approved to go to planning in July 2021, which I was pleased to see. My Department's planning and building unit also received an application in June 2017 from CBS New Ross seeking capital funding for the provision of a physical education, PE, hall. The school authority was informed in writing that it is currently not possible to consider this application.

Under the national development plan, increased funding has been provided for the school sector capital investment programme, which is an extremely positive and proactive step. This funding allows for a continued focus on the provision of new permanent school places to keep pace with demographic demand and also provides for an additional focus on the refurbishment of existing school buildings to include the building and modernisation of PE facilities in post-primary schools. During the national development plan period for 2018 to 2020, there were 526 completed building projects under the large-scale capital programme and the additional school accommodation scheme. These projects delivered in excess of 48,000 school places, including permanent accommodation for 229 special classes and additional capacity for 67 classrooms in 14 special schools throughout the country.

The Department also has a significant existing pipeline of projects to be delivered over the coming years to meet capacity needs, managed under the large-scale capital programme and the additional school accommodation scheme. This will make significant progress in providing modern, energy-efficient school facilities and the replacement of temporary accommodation.

The immediate priority of my Department is providing 20,000 new and replacement school places each year to ensure every child has a school place. However, later in the national development plan period there will be an increasing focus on the upgrade and refurbishment of the existing school stock. This will include a physical education hall build and modernisation programme to ensure students in all post-primary schools have access to these facilities. I thank the Deputy for raising this matter and giving me the opportunity to outline the current position with that type of school build.

I thank the Minister for her positive response. The engagement between the Minister and me has always been positive and I am pleased with her response. I again extend the invitation to the Minister to visit New Ross so the principal of the school, Mr. Pat Rossiter, can have the opportunity to show her around. I was there for the delivery in 2019 of the grant of funding for the new build.

The enrolment of 397 students has increased to a current total of 403 students, although the school lost two students because of the lack of PE facilities. The fact remains that we have 403 students and need to cater for their physical education requirements. I am a mother and the Minister has been a principal as well as a mother, so I know she is aware that physical education must be balanced with academic education. In a time when we live in such mental health strife, and particularly with what students have been through in the past number of years because of Covid-19 and other factors, we must prioritise a build for the school. There are 403 students with a basic tarmac yard where they must carry out physical education exercises, and most of the time that is impossible because of the weather, particularly at this time of year.

The principal has stated:

CBS New Ross is the only secondary school in the county without a sports arena. Presently, PE is delivered outside on a non-suitable tarmac yard. Winter PE is regularly not an option for the students presently for 403 students. This is a major issue. The school board of management is extremely frustrated and annoyed with the situation and feel that in 2021 it is totally unacceptable for CBS New Ross to be without basic PE and sports indoor facilities.

I am nonetheless heartened by what the Minister has said today. If she can make her way to New Ross before Christmas, I would greatly appreciate it, as would the school principal.

I thank the Deputy. I am inundated with invitations to County Wexford and the Minister of State, Deputy Browne, is consistently inviting me. I accept the Deputy's invitation also. When my diary allows it, I will be absolutely happy to visit. I am certainly very conscious of the Deputy's invitation.

I appreciate the case made by the Deputy. There is positive news in what I have to say and I appreciate that the Deputy has acknowledged that. The Department currently has a significant pipeline of projects in train for delivery to the 4,000 schools in my care as Minister for Education. For example, in the year ahead we have more than 200 projects that will be on-site and going to construction for the 2022 period. We are looking at a net spend of more than €792 million on capital projects for 2022, which is a significant envelope of funding.

I am conscious of the need to progress PE halls, as the Deputy has referenced. I am pleased to be able to say that as part of the national development programme, there will be an increased focus on refurbishment of existing buildings, specifically including PE hall build and modernisation. I am determined that we will deliver on that as soon as possible. It is a huge vote of confidence in the education sector that even during lockdown we saw such innovative and determined delivery of additional accommodation, much within the Deputy's county and to the benefit of students there. We are determined to continue that roll-out.

Emergency Departments

I thank the Minister of State for her presence today. We all know, both as human beings and constituency politicians, that a trip made by anybody to hospital is generally a journey taken with some little anxiety and trepidation, if not more. It is not something we like to have to schedule into our diary. Covid-19 has clearly exacerbated this experience for people because it tends to make the hospital environment even more fraught. That is notwithstanding the incredible efforts of nurses and doctors in accident and emergency departments and all the other front-line healthcare workers who have kept the hospital system going throughout this period. I know the public greatly appreciates that. Long waiting times can discommode staff and cause them as much anxiety as they cause for the people waiting in the rooms.

Tallaght University Hospital in my constituency serves a huge catchment area, as the Minister of State is aware, from north Wicklow to north Kildare and then into my constituency to Rathfarnham, Knocklyon, Templeogue and Citywest, taking in Tallaght, Firhouse and Ballycullen. It is a massive area. Recently I have heard from a number of constituents who specifically mentioned the accident and emergency department in Tallaght.

I do not want to criticise the hospital but could we get an explanation for what has been happening in the past month or two? We are not technically into winter yet but we are coming towards the end of autumn.

Are these circumstances being reported to the Minister? What steps are being taken? What is the understanding of the Minister, the HSE and Tallaght University Hospital as to why waiting times have increased in the emergency department? What steps can and will be taken to mitigate those long waiting times and to ensure, particularly in the context of the Covid pandemic, that patients enduring those waiting times are made as comfortable as possible?

I welcome the opportunity to address the House on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly. As Deputy Lahart has outlined so well, of course someone presenting to an emergency department is anxious and upset. The presence of Covid has made it more fraught. I acknowledge the distress that overcrowded emergency departments cause to patients, their families and front-line staff working in very challenging conditions in hospitals throughout the country. I acknowledge the work and commitment of staff in ensuring the uninterrupted provision of emergency care throughout the pandemic.

The HSE reports that emergency department attendances have now reached 2019 levels, exceeding such levels at some sites. The numbers of patients waiting on trolleys have been increasing steadily since June 2021, although trolley counts for October to date remain 28% lower than the 2019 levels.

Tallaght University Hospital is one of Ireland's largest acute teaching hospitals and the emergency department is one of the busiest in the country with 35,000 attendances to the end of August this year, an increase of 8.6% compared with the same period last year. Emergency department admissions were 9,900, up by 7.1% compared with the same period in 2020 and up by 7.6% compared with 2019. Sustained high volumes of attendances, including many frail elderly patients with complex medical conditions, have continued over several weeks now. The hospital is actively managing the situation by having early ward rounds and identifying patients for expedited discharge.

While attendance and admission numbers have now returned to pre-pandemic levels, the continued requirement to provide separate Covid-19 and non-Covid-19 pathways presents an additional challenge to patient flow in all hospitals, including Tallaght.

The winter plan for 2020-21 and budget 2021 provided for an additional 1,146 permanent hospital beds, of which 56 are in Tallaght. I am pleased to say that 50 of these new beds have been opened, with the remaining six acute beds to open in the near future. The 50 beds comprise 26 beds opened since January 2021 in the new day-care unit at Tallaght Cross West, a further 18 beds also opened since January in Tallaght Cross and most recently, six trauma beds opened in September. These new beds provide improved patient experience in terms of comfort and dignity. They improve infection prevention and control capabilities and will improve patient flow at the hospital.

In recent years, the hospital has been pursuing an ambitious capital development programme. Last year saw the culmination of three major projects, namely, the Reeves day surgery centre, the Vartry renal unit and the community radiology centre. Despite the challenges that 2020 presented, all units scheduled to open during the year opened on time and on budget, which is great testament to Tallaght hospital.

Construction work has been under way since October 2020 to deliver the expansion and upgrade of the intensive care unit at Tallaght. When both phases are completed, an additional 12 single ICU rooms will be available. Both phases are expected to be completed in quarter 2 of 2022.

The Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and I had a sneak preview of the children's satellite hospital at Tallaght. It is a very fine facility and I very much look forward to it opening. I acknowledge, as the Minister of State did, the work and commitment of staff in Tallaght University Hospital and their efforts in ensuring an uninterrupted provision of emergency care throughout the pandemic.

As the Minister of State noted, Tallaght University Hospital is one of Ireland's largest acute teaching hospitals with 35,000 attendances to the end of August this year, which is incredible. As confirmed by the Minister of State's answer, not only have attendances in the emergency department reached pre-pandemic levels, they have increased by 7.5% compared with 2019, prior to the pandemic. All the other figures the Minister of State highlighted show increases in attendance numbers, reflecting the increase in population and the ageing population in the surrounding area. Over the years, people like Professor Rónán Collins have pointed out that this is not unexpected.

I welcome the 56 new beds and that 50 of them are open. The Minister of State has outlined where they are located across the Tallaght University Hospital campus, which has a substantial footprint in Tallaght. The HSE and the Department need to know that notwithstanding those additional beds, figures are rising. These additional facilities were provided to cope with pre-Covid levels. We now expect some kind of mild surge of people returning to hospital, particularly those who had put it off during the pandemic. I ask the Minister of State to outline to the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, the concern of the local community over the capacity at Tallaght. The HSE needs to constantly review increasing capacity, if necessary.

I will bring the Deputy's concern back to the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly. I am delighted to hear that they both visited the hospital recently and have seen the progress. Attendances at all emergency department are hospitals have increased throughout the country. It is a very worrying trend so early in the winter. We are facing into the possibility of the winter flu and the vomiting bug. Luckily last year people did not present with those two conditions but already we are seeing the trends. Coupled with that, we are all conscious that more than 400 people presenting with Covid are in hospitals, including more than 70 in ICU. That also needs to be thrown into the mix and it has been very difficult. I join the Deputy and everybody the House in saluting front-line workers, dealing with this at the coalface.

To date under the winter plan, approximately 800 additional acute beds have been provided nationally on a permanent basis over the number available at the end of 2019. A total of 73 permanent sub-acute beds have been provided. As the Deputy will be aware because he has raised it with me many times, we have allocated considerable funding to home support to try to support elderly people to live at home, to age well and to try to avoid attendances at emergency departments. Notwithstanding that, we have seen a spike in the number of people who are presenting in hospital.

I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. I know how important it is to him and to the people of Tallaght. I can assure him that the Department of Health and the HSE will continue to work with local hospital management to further improve patient experience in Tallaght.