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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 8 Dec 2021

Vol. 1015 No. 5

Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

Yesterday, I raised the contract signed by government with National Broadband Ireland, NBI, and pointed out that the majority shareholder of that consortium is Oak Hill Advisors, a firm with more expertise in dealing with distressed debt than infrastructural projects. Broadband roll-out is behind schedule and there are major concerns regarding the structure of the contract with NBI. It was the single biggest contract entered into by the State, with more than €2 billion of public money on the line for a network the State will not even own.

When the contract was signed, the Government gave assurances that the consortium would have to put up more than €200 million of its own funds. That has not happened. The company has invested less than half of that amount and has already recouped €50 million in fees. That looks like a sweet deal for the consortium and a bad deal for Ireland.

Has the Taoiseach ensured that no taxpayer money will be used on this project until the more than €200 million of the consortium's money has been invested in the network? That was the commitment that was made. It is vital we get this sorted out. The people of rural Ireland, in particular, have waited long enough for broadband and the Government must get this right.

As I said yesterday, this was robustly debated at the time for a considerable length of time in terms of issues leading up to awarding of the contract, the best way to do it and so on. It was done transparently. The Deputy referenced yesterday the memo from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform that was published at the time. It was weighed up at the time and we had our view. I was in the Opposition. The contract has been signed and the key issues now are to get delivery in terms of the broadband plans, that all contractual obligations are met and, critically, that we get broadband delivered to these areas under the remit of the plan.

Can you answer my question?

That is not an answer to the question.

The welcome announcement of the recommendation of vaccines for five to 11-year-olds is something I am strongly in favour of. I seek clarity for the public because we need it. Will this be done through mass vaccination centres or GPs? The vaccine is recommended for those with underlying illnesses or those living with a child with complex needs or with somebody older who is immunocompromised. I understand that but I have a concern about how we kick this off and the language used. Already a discourse is emanating that this is really just for those three categories. I am 100% in favour of this and very pro-vaccine. I urge the Taoiseach today to clarify that while these three cohorts are being prioritised, we are promoting this vaccine for all children. I believe from the discourse I am hearing that there will be challenges on this, more so than in the rest of the vaccine roll-out. I urge the Taoiseach to start an information campaign immediately to deal with this issue from today.

I thank the Deputy for his comment. His point is valid. The advice from the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, is that it strongly recommends that children aged five to 11 years with an underlying condition, living with a younger child with complex medical needs or living with an immunocompromised adult should receive the Covid-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer-BioNTech. This should be offered in parallel with booster doses for those of all ages with underlying conditions.

Its idea is that that should not be delayed unduly. NIAC has also recommended that vaccination should be offered to all other children aged five to 11 years in parallel with the offer of booster doses to those aged under 40. The Covid-19 vaccine that has been recommended is the Pfizer vaccine for children aged five to 11 years, and it goes through the doses recommended as opposed to the dose for adults. It is a two-dose schedule three weeks apart.

We now need to give time to the Department of Health and the HSE to comprehensively deal with this. They will announce the comprehensive plan, along with an information campaign.

Thank you, Taoiseach.

How that is kicked off is important.

That is what they are going to do. I think they will take on board what the Deputy says.

Time is of the essence.

I want to ask the Taoiseach about tenants not getting their deposits back from landlords. Tenants who are renting from Period Door Properties are owed more than €200,000. Despite 36 determination orders in their favour, they have not received any of their deposits from the landlord, which has gone into liquidation. Tenants have lost out on about €1,800 each, which they simply cannot afford. As the Taoiseach will know, legislation for a deposit protection scheme was introduced in 2015. Six years later, the deposit protection scheme has still not been set up. What is the Government doing to help these tenants to get back their deposits, which they are legally entitled to do, and when will a deposit protection scheme be set up?

The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage has already committed in that regard, particularly in terms of students and so forth. He is very actively considering that and, I think, he already has proposals developed in regard to helping people, in the first instance, not to have commit too much in advance and to get their deposits back.

Huge numbers of musicians, performers, entertainers and taxi drivers who, as a result of the dramatic reduction in people going out and the new measures on numbers and percentages in theatres and venues which impact on the night-time economy, are applying for the much-trumpeted restoration of the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and are receiving letters denying them it because they had signed on for jobseeker's allowance last week and because they are on the part-time self-employment scheme, the whole point of which was to allow people to earn a little and get some support. All of that ability to earn is now gone because their industry has been decimated coming into Christmas.

Thank you, Deputy. Time is up.

People are taking massive hits on their income and they are being denied access to the PUP. What is the Taoiseach going to do for these groups of people who have been bit by measures the Government has taken?

Again, as has been announced, the rate of payment of the PUP will be linked to prior earnings. All individuals, including the self-employed and students, who lose their employment on or after Tuesday, 7 December because of the effects of the new public health restrictions are eligible. The PUP will be available for self-employed workers, such as taxi drivers, if they lose their jobs as a result of the latest restrictions. There is also a provision whereby self-employed workers such as taxi drivers can earn up to €960 over an eight-week period and still receive the PUP. There is flexibility for self-employed workers to carry out some limited work and still avail of the PUP.

Why then are people being denied it?

On 5 October, in this House, the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, stated: "Enabling people with care needs to continue to live independently at home for as long as possible is a priority for the Government." Today, we have 5,000 people waiting for home care support hours. According to private home care providers, 3,000 additional staff will be needed to fill the gap. Carers are not on the critical skills list for permit application on the basis of a review which states that evidence suggests the contracts of employment and terms and conditions being offered are significant factors in the recruitment challenges faced by the sector. In Wexford, we have 1,000 people waiting for home care. Yesterday, I spoke to a woman who was in tears as she is number 1,000 on the waiting list for home care support. She has a broken knee and a broken wrist and she cannot get any home care support.

Thank you, Deputy.

I ask Taoiseach to please outline a plan.

Real progress has been made on resourcing home care hours. As the Deputy will know, about 5 million additional hours were provided in 2021-----

I agree, but people cannot access them.

-----and these will be maintained in 2022. There is an issue with securing workers. The Minister of State, Deputy Butler, is working on this with the sector. In the medium term, the issue is improving conditions and so forth but, in the immediate term, it is how we can make it more amenable for people to come into the sector. It is not an issue of resources any more; it is about securing the necessary workforce to provide for the demand out there.

On the same issue, this is a shocking crisis all over the country. The Taoiseach said earlier that the Government's primary role is protecting people's health and caring for people. People are being abandoned. Money is being thrown at this, but we cannot get people to do the work. I salute the carers and the people providing home help, but they are running from Billy to Jack doing what they can in limited time. People are ending up in hospital because they cannot get home care packages. The situation is as bad in Tipperary as it is in Wexford. All over the country, there is a huge shortage.

Christmas Day is approaching. Over Christmas Day and St. Stephen's Day, people will not have a visit from anybody. People will be left to fend for themselves. What kind of a moral compass does the Taoiseach, the Minister for Health and the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, have to do that to old people? There is no point blaming the crisis on the shortage of staff. The HSE should have seen this coming. We have been banging on about in here for years. The Government has thrown money at it throughout the pandemic, but it cannot get the operators. The bottom line is people are suffering and getting sicker and families are struggling. Some of these people do not have families. It is a terrible situation.

The Minister of State, Deputy Butler, does have a moral compass. I do not think the Deputy should suggest anything to the contrary. The number of people waiting for home support across different categories has reduced from over 9,000 at the start of 2020 to approximately 5,300 at the end of September 2021. The issue is recruitment of additional home support workers. That is the issue. Everything that can be done will be done. Demand has increased but resourcing has also increased. Significant additional people have come into the service to work. We now need to do everything we possibly can to recruit more people. The Minister of State, Deputy Butler, has established a cross-departmental strategic workforce advisory group to get the views of stakeholders and examine the workforce challenges in home support and nursing homes. That group will also look at the issues of recruitment, retention, training, career development and sustainable employment of home care workers into the future.

Yesterday afternoon, the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment told the media that it was hoped the Government would be in a position to announce the financial supports for the entertainment sector on Wednesday. He went on to say that it may well be that we will need to use the vehicle of the Seanad to do that in the next couple of days and, if not, we may be able to do it in the new year. I know the Tánaiste believes these new restrictions are peculiar. To be honest, I find his lack of urgency more than a little peculiar. The lack of empathy for what people are suffering is astounding.

My offices in Donegal are inundated with calls related to the restoration of the PUP, the lack of clarity around revamp of the existing schemes and in regard to the Government's lack of understanding of life on the ground. It is unfair to leave this on the long finger over Christmas. The Government needs to restore payments to a proper level for these workers affected by the current restrictions. A proper level is not the level the Tánaiste's right-wing laissez-faire focus groups have arrived at. Will the Government commit to bringing any required legislation before this House prior to the Christmas break to give people peace of mind?

There is no lack of urgency and no lack of empathy in terms of the situation that certain sectors of our economy find themselves in because of the restrictions relating to Covid-19 and the impact of Covid-19 on their particular sectors. It makes a lot of sense, however, as we move from wave to wave and different phases of this pandemic, to adjust the mechanisms we have at our disposal to support people. One can do the overall broad economy but as I said yesterday, a range of sectors have come back very strong in the economy. There has been a very strong rebound and so we want to target our resources to those sectors that need them. By doing that, we give ourselves more sustainability into 2022. We do not know what twists and turns this pandemic is going to present to us so we need to have that capacity. The economic recovery and the way we have done things in the past year and a half demonstrate the wisdom of our approach.

The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, has said that within the next 30 years, 2 million of our citizens could be impacted by rising sea levels.

It is projected that we will have a permanent sea level rise of up to 1 m within the next 30 years. Should we not be planning for this now, as other countries are? The national coastal change management strategy is long overdue. Will the Government take this issue seriously and what are its plans to offset the inevitability of a permanent sea level rise? Our cities will be impacted.

Thank you, Deputy.

In my constituency, Cobh, Youghal and Midleton will be flooded if this happens.

I agree with the Deputy, who has made a fair point. We need to work on adaptation more aggressively. I will check the current status of the national coastal change management strategy. We have to prepare. In the past two days, we saw the benefit of preparation and planning by our emergency teams and the different Departments, agencies and local authorities. When things go well, the debate is always, "Should we have done X, Y and Z in preparing?" The inevitable debate is now happening but the bottom line is that I have admired the level of preparation a lot of the agencies did and likewise with climate change and the impact on our coasts and so forth.

I raise the issue of accessibility of testing services. While this is obviously a nationwide issue, I will give just one example from my constituency. Until recently, the HSE had a community testing centre at the old health centre on Emmet Road in Inchicore. That is now closed and people in the area who are looking to be tested are having to go out to Citywest or Dublin Airport. According to the Central Statistics Office, CSO, there are places in my constituency where 75% of households do not have access to a car. How are they supposed to get to Citywest or the airport when we are telling them not to use public transport? I have raised with the HSE the need for local community services that are accessible to people who do not have access to a car and who cannot or do not drive. I got a reply from the HSE but not really an answer. Will the Government ensure there are accessible testing services at a community level-----

Thank you, Deputy. The time is up.

-----instead of forcing people to schlep all the way out to Citywest when they do not have a car?

First, to be fair to the HSE and everybody, we are doing 225,000 PCR tests a week now. I remember the hue and cry in here more than a year ago when 100,000 tests were being done. We are now at 225,000 and the target is to get to 250,000. Within that framework, obviously, the HSE will do everything it possibly can to make testing more accessible to people. That can be challenging in terms of logistics and getting the right locations. I will take on board what the Deputy said and communicate it to the HSE.

On Saturday, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, said taxi drivers would not be included in the reopened PUP scheme. On Sunday, the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, said they potentially would be if they could show they had lost their job as a result of the latest restrictions, and there was reference to a Revenue or social welfare audit. Will the Taoiseach indicate whether taxi drivers will be included and, if so, how they will be assessed? Regarding the concept of losing one's job, we know 100% of late-night work is gone as well as at least 50% of other work. If the Department of Social Protection is so inclined, it can point towards the remaining work and say it is available to all taxi drivers to fight over. It is not enough to sustain them, however, especially over the Christmas period. Will the Taoiseach outline how the Government will support the taxi drivers over Christmas, which is a couple of weeks away?

I said earlier in reply to a question by Deputy Boyd Barrett that the PUP will be available to self-employed workers such as taxi drivers if they lose their job as a result of the latest restrictions.

What does "lose their job" mean?

There is also a provision whereby self-employed workers such as taxi drivers can earn up to €960 over an eight-week period and still receive the PUP. There is flexibility for self-employed workers to carry out some limited work and still avail of the PUP.

They have been refused it.

Sometimes the manner in which the questions are being put suggests we are in lockdown. We are not. Our economy is the fastest growing economy in quarter 3 in the entirety of Europe. Large sectors of the economy are at full throttle. The point I am making is that things are not at a standstill. That makes it more challenging.

Work for taxi drivers has dried up.

It has not entirely dried up. Obviously, there has been an impact on hospitality in terms of all the cancellations.

Thank you, Taoiseach.

That affects taxi drivers and, therefore, they can apply for cover.

A large number of parents have been raising different concerns with me about the situation of Covid within the school environment, particularly the measures to deal with it. For some, the wearing of masks is a real difficulty and open windows for ventilation is a big problem for many. Parents are asking about measures to improve the environment for children in the classroom, including ventilation systems being installed, the use of masks and, in particular, the option of vaccinations being available to children in the classroom if they so wish. Will the Taoiseach outline the plans regarding these and other measures that can improve the classroom environment for both school staff and children?

Children in school is a priority, as everybody agrees. In terms of the development of the child, that development is optimal when he or she has the capacity to go to school. The overriding objective of the Government is to keep our schools open and have children enjoying education in school. Obviously, Covid has impacted on children and created anxieties and pressures. The manifestation of that has been seen most recently in the advice to wear masks. The next phase will be vaccinations. I pay tribute to principals, school management and teachers, who are doing everything possible to be sensitive but also to create a happy atmosphere in schools. I have been to schools recently where there were very happy children enjoying their education. That has to be said too, notwithstanding all the challenges.

Thank you, Taoiseach. The time is up.

On the vaccination front, the HSE will be producing a comprehensive plan.

The time is up.

The Deputy should remember there are close to 3,800 schools in the country. There will be logistical issues if we have to do it in every single school.

I strongly support the Taoiseach's comments in the House encouraging people to take up the third dose or booster vaccine. Initially, when the vaccine programme was being rolled out, a number of issues arose in regard to getting the vaccine to housebound people. I am getting those same complaints now in terms of the third dose. The family of a 99-year-old person from east Clare has been in touch with me looking to get the third dose for that person. I am dealing directly with the HSE on this and I hope we will get there. I can pass the details on to the Taoiseach. The overall issue is that there is no established pathway for people who are housebound to get vaccinated. That needs to be dealt with now. Families of loved ones who want to get the vaccine should be encouraged to do so and shown how to get it.

In terms of the over-70s group, GPs have largely been responsible for the provision of the vaccines and they have done an excellent job.

Not in the home.

To be fair, they have done an excellent job.

They are not doing it in the home.

I did not say that. Will you calm it, Deputy? I am saying that, overall, they did a good job.

We are running out of time.

For the first, second and current dose, the ambulance service teams did a lot of work. We are in the middle of a very difficult situation in the acute services as well, so there have been challenges in that respect. If Deputy Carey gives me the details, I will follow it up.

This morning, some parents in my constituency received the following message from their local school: "If someone in your household has Covid-19 and cannot isolate from others, your child would need to stay at home for 17 days even if they feel well and get a negative PCR test." This refers to something that public heath advisers and the HSE refer to as constant exposure or ongoing exposure, where there is one person in the house who tests positive but, for whatever reason, cannot isolate and does not have access to a dedicated bathroom, which creates this situation. I am going to put to the Taoiseach the questions these parents have been putting to me this morning. Will homeschooling be facilitated when situations like this arise? Given we have a seven-day average of 4,659 cases, it is safe to assume there are a number of children in this situation at this point in time.

Will the Deputy repeat the start of her question?

I will indeed. I am referring to what is called constant exposure or ongoing exposure. Will homeschooling be facilitated for those children who are required to stay out of school for 17 days? Second, where a parent is required to be at home to provide vital care for a child, will that parent have access to the pandemic financial supports, whether illness benefit or the PUP?

Parents of children in such situations should first contact their local school.

Is the Deputy suggesting that anybody who is a close contact and who is staying at home should be provided with homeschooling?

No, the child. If you have a child-----

That is already-----

No, this is for children who are out for 17 days.

The homeschool programme has, as the Deputy knows, already been extended significantly.

This is for 17 days.

I am talking about the solution that the Deputy is suggesting. It needs to be realistic. The first port of call should be engagement with the principal of the local school regarding the educational needs of the child.

Has the Taoiseach had engagements with the schools? Will the parents be able to access financial supports?

The Deputy cannot ask several questions. I call Deputy Paul Kehoe.

On 8 December 2000, Trevor Deely went missing in Dublin. Trevor, a 22-year-old employee of Bank of Ireland Asset Management, had attended a Christmas party that evening. On leaving the party, he stopped off at the bank where he worked and disappeared shortly afterwards. The last sighting of him was at 4:14 a.m. on Haddington Road. The search for Trevor continues. In fairness, his parents, Michael and Ann Deely, his siblings, family, colleagues and friends have put huge effort in over the past 21 years in the search for Trevor. A man dressed in black who had been seen in two pieces of CCTV footage on that night is deemed crucial to the investigation. An Garda Síochána has conducted extensive searches and a wide-ranging investigation, but to no avail. As we approach Christmas, this is a difficult time for the Deely family and for the families of Annie McCarrick, JoJo Dollard, Fiona Pender, Ciara Breen, Fiona Sinnott and Deirdre Jacob. Can the Taoiseach confirm that every effort will be made and that State resources will be used to ensure that the existing investigation will continue in order that, hopefully, some form of closure might be achieved?

I thank the Deputy for raising the sad and tragic situation of Trevor Deely and the fact that his family and the other families referred to have not received closure. All resources will made be available to An Garda Síochána and the relevant State agencies to pursue the issue.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for giving me the time to speak about the hospital in Dingle. In 2008, Ospidéal Pobal Chorca Dhuibhne was granted funding of €16.4 million and promised to deliver badly needed services for West Kerry, including 76 beds, an X-ray service and a place where minor injuries could be treated. The hospital, however, has not fared well under successive Governments and is operating now at 30 beds below capacity. It never provided more than 54 beds. Given the storm that happened recently and the extra pressure that is on health service, there is a need for extra services on the peninsula. Eight residential beds and eight short-stay beds have been closed due to lack of staff. The fact that the hospital has never delivered on its full potential is, in my view, a disgrace. As a former Minister for Health, what is the Taoiseach going to do about the matter?

I remember we were involved in getting it established and getting the momentum behind getting the new facility built. One of the major issues, notwithstanding the fact that we have recruited over 11,000 extra healthcare workers in the past two years, is that it still remains a challenge to recruit the necessary medical and nursing personnel to facilities. Again, we will work with the HSE to see what we can do to expand the facility in Chorca Dhuibhne.

Two years ago, the Dáil referred the Patient Safety (Notifiable Patient Safety Incidents) Bill 2019 for Committee Stage consideration by the health committee. This new law will provide for mandatory open disclosure in the case of serious medical mistakes. We have all dealt with incidents where individuals or their next of kin have been refused honest answers to the most basic of questions by the health service. Sadly, the pandemic and the cyberattack have been used in some instances to justify the continuation of this practice. My question to the Taoiseach is when will Committee Stage of this vital Bill be taken?

I will revert to the Deputy on the matter.

I want to raise the issue of the wearing of face masks by children in primary schools. I fundamentally get the necessity to follow NPHET advice, and I have always supported the Taoiseach in that. Following that expert advice has served the Taoiseach, the country and the people well. There comes a point when we have to ask whether the benefits of a measure outweigh the potential harms of that measure. I am doing this on behalf of the parents, guardians and school principals, who have contacted me in respect of this issue. They have concerns about developmental issues relating to young children, psychological issues, educational issues, learning difficulties, etc. When will there be a review of this policy, particularly in light of the fact that the virus does not have a massive impact on young children's health in general and that the numbers of hospitalisations, etc., are starting to balance out?

The advice in this regard came from the Chief Medical Officer and NPHET. They are primarily concerned with the high levels of case numbers involving five- to 11-year-olds in particular. The recommendation was that mask-wearing should be for those aged nine plus. We will continue to keep this under review. We will continue to get feedback from the schools and evaluate this, but it is in line with public health advice.

A number of months ago, Ministers and the three leaders of the parties in government, made a lot of noise about the bonus and recognition payment for those on the front line in healthcare. Many Ministers fell over themselves to talk about how that was going to be expanded to others on the front line outside of healthcare. There was a lot of expectation built up and a great deal of noise. The budget came and went, but people heard nothing. Since the budget, that noise has been replaced with radio silence. Maybe the Taoiseach can amplify the noise that was there in the past and explain to me and the people listening when those on the front line in healthcare and elsewhere who have been through the wars over the past number of months and years are going to get the bonus and the recognition payment that was promised?

I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. There has been engagement with social partners about this. There is no question that front-line workers, particularly in the healthcare area, have been exceptional, in ICUs and elsewhere. Certainly, we are looking at a range of proposals. The intention remains to respond to that issue. When those deliberations are finalised I will come back to Deputy Cullinane.