Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Horticulture Sector

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House, although we are meeting in the Dáil Chamber, and for taking the time to answer the question that has been selected.

I warmly welcome the Minister of State to the House. I think this is his first time before Seanad Éireann. I congratulate him on his appointment to the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. I know a lot about his work and his track record in this area. We have a particularly good Minister of State, who has shown a particular grá for and interest in heritage for many years. I wish him well in the task ahead of him.

I wish to raise the national peatlands strategy and the issue of peat moss in the horticultural industry. I understand that the preservation and restoration of peatlands is part of the country's climate action strategy. I congratulate the Minister of State and his party on the work that has been done on that. I know the climate action Bill is to be published in the coming days. I understand that and that Deputy Noonan is a Minister of State with excellent green credentials. However, I also understand the importance of peat in the horticultural industry. We had a long debate about forestry. We know that horticultural peat is of critical importance to the use of nursery stock in the forestry sector, where it is used widely. The long-term plan to phase out the commercial use of peat moss in the horticultural industry, as opposed to domestic horticulture and gardening, is of concern to me and many of the growers and participants in the commercial sector.

I refer particularly to forestry nursery stock and mushroom production. It is critical in the production of mushrooms. We have a very successful mushroom production arrangement. Believe it or not, we fly mushrooms to France from our airports. Mushrooms that were in Ireland two days ago are sitting on shelves in Paris, London and all over the world. We have a track record in this product. That is important. Peat moss is also used in organic gardening and horticulture.

This will also have a knock-on effect on jobs. That debate was cleverly played out in the forestry sector. I understand that concern. A balance must always be struck. I am really concerned. The curtailment of peat production will have an impact on Bord na Móna and more importantly on the communities, villages and people who derive their principal income from this work. They must have alternative employment.

Then there is the aspect which I really invited the Minister of State to the House to discuss. We need more research and more time. Phasing out peat moss will be a process. We talk about a just transition, but that takes time. We cannot just cut off the supply of horticultural peat moss until a new alternative such as wood bark or wood chippings is available. Substitutes are being trialled but the trials are not complete. That is an important factor. I am interested in hearing about where the national peatlands strategy is today. What are the Minister of State's plans? Does he see an argument for making this change on a phased basis? I am conscious of where the Minister of State is coming from and his green credentials. I just want to emphasise the importance of the horticulture industry to jobs, food production and the continuous supply of peat to the mushroom sector.

It is a great privilege to make my first address to Seanad Éireann in reply to Senator Boyhan. He and I go back a long way in politics. I congratulate Senator Mark Daly on his election as Cathaoirleach. It is a great honour for the Senator and his family and recognises his long and dedicated work in Seanad Éireann.

I thank Senator Boyhan for raising this important issue, on which he and I have engaged on numerous occasions. This morning I was chairing the inter-agency group on the Drumkeeran landslide, which addressed that tragic incident in County Leitrim. We are making good progress in that regard. This feeds into the national peatlands strategy, as the Senator rightly said, and the efforts to find alternative employment and sources of income for midlands peat workers as part of a just transition. Good progress has been made in that regard, but there is no doubt that this element is significant to the horticulture sector. As Senator Boyhan has said, we want to deal with it in a manner that is sustainable, equitable and fair to workers in the industry.

The national peatlands strategy sets out a cross-governmental approach to managing issues relating to peatlands, including compliance with EU environmental law, climate change, forestry, flood control, energy, nature conservation, planning and agriculture. It is comprises 25 principles and 32 actions to be implemented by a range of Departments, Government agencies and semi-State bodies.

The peatlands strategy implementation group has a role in co-ordinating and reporting to Government on the implementation of the national peatlands strategy. This is a cross-departmental group which shares an independent chair with the Irish Peatland Conservation Council. It prepares progress reports on the implementation of actions under the strategy, which require Government approval prior to publication. A mid-term review of the national peatlands strategy is currently being led by my Department. This review is intended to assess the overall direction of the strategy and to ensure it remains focused on achieving its intended outcomes. Subject to the approval of the Government, I intend to publish a mid-term review document for public consultation, taking into account the views of the peatlands strategy implementation group and of the Irish Peatland Conservation Council.

Action 5 of the national peatlands strategy provides for a review of the use of peat moss in the horticultural industry. A working group comprised of representatives from the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment and the Environmental Protection Agency was established to undertake the review. Under the auspices of the working group, a key issues paper in relation to the review of the use of peat moss in the horticultural industry was published in 2019 and the public was invited to make submissions by the end or January this year. Some 34 submissions were received from a range of individuals in the environmental sector, industry and advisory bodies.

Last month I published a report on the review of the use of peat moss in the horticultural industry. The review report was prepared by the inter-agency working group following the receipt of submissions in response to publication of the key issues paper. The review report notes that significant positives and negatives arise from ending the use of peat moss in the horticultural industry, as the Senator rightly pointed out.

There are difficult choices to be made, from how we garden as individuals to the economic and cultural impacts arising from any significant changes. As a result, I propose to establish a working group, the membership of which will include representatives from relevant Departments and State agencies, NGOs and industry stakeholders and which will operate under an independent chairperson, to examine the issues that were identified during the review, including the need for investment in further research into the development, education and use of alternatives to peat moss, such as bark, wood fibre, biosolids, bracken and green compost, perlite, vermiculite, rockwool and horticultural clay. The Senator will be aware of these alternatives.

This week, my Department is set to advertise in the national newspapers for expressions of interest in the position of chairperson of the working group. Once the chairperson is in place, invitations will be issued to participate in the working group. The chairperson will not have an easy task, given the different and disparate views that have been expressed on ending the use of peat moss in the horticultural industry. I hope the working group will endeavour to chart a fair and sustainable path forward, taking into account the impact any changes would have on individuals, industry, local economies and the environmental consequences for the country as a whole. I encourage all those who participate in the group to endeavour to engage in a constructive debate and in an open, fair and effective fashion. I expect the chairperson to issue recommendations to me arising from the deliberations of the working group within a reasonable period once it is established.

Before I call the Senator, I congratulate the Minister of State on his appointment. I know he will do a great job and I thank him for all his courtesy when I called him in Kilkenny over the years. It was always a pleasure to have a chat. I call Senator Boyhan.

I thank the Minister of State for that comprehensive review. He has clearly left the door open and recognises the importance of a transition from commercial peat to alternative materials, which is important.

I also thank the Minister of State for sharing with us the details in regard to advertising and establishing the review group, which will be particularly helpful. If we apply standards in regard to commercial peat, we have to be very conscious of the issues. I am hearing reports of peat being imported from other jurisdictions into Ireland, which has to be a concern, particularly in the European Union context. If we have a policy in respect of peat and milling peat in our jurisdiction, then we have to be consistent and to stand in solidarity, if that is the right word to use, across the member states of the Union. That is something the Minister of State might raise initially with the working group because we need to ascertain what level of commercial peat is coming into the various ports of the country. I am satisfied it is happening and it needs to be examined on the basis that we are all in this together, across Europe, and we need consistency.

Childcare Services

I welcome the Minister and congratulate him on his appointment. I wish him well. I hope he will be a font of fresh and new thinking in regard to this key issue.

I want to start with some quotations from childcare workers. The first reads as follows:

I hope to leave my service in the next month. I will try one last service and if I am still unhappy, I will leave childcare. I have an honours degree and have worked in three places in the last three years in search of decent working conditions. I worked in a petrol station for nine years previously and was on better pay.

The second reads:

I hope to leave the sector. I cannot see any change coming. I am working longer hours for less pay.

The next reads:

The employers are given grants to support the opening of businesses but staff get nothing, as usual.

In fairness, the Minister is already aware that the childcare sector is in crisis. We know that, for parents, the service is too expensive, for the workers involved, the levels of pay are just too low, and for the childcare providers, there is very little money to be made in the sector, which is fundamentally broken. Sinn Féin unveiled its own policy for a fundamental transformation of childcare towards a fully State-funded model earlier this week. This morning, I want to hone in on two crucial issues for this upcoming budget: the first is pay and the second is provision for sick pay for these childcare workers.

It seems quite a long time ago now, but it was only February when 30,000 people marched outside of this building in respect of childcare, such was the depth of feeling, anger and despair, coupled with hope that someone this time would listen. There is no question that staff retention is a key issue and, indeed, it is mentioned in the programme for government. Just to make clear how bad the situation is, there is a 40% attrition rate in full day-care services, which means four out of ten workers leave the service each year. We cannot build a childcare service on that basis. We cannot build a childcare service on the basis of an average rate of pay of €11.46 an hour, with many childcare workers being paid just the minimum wage or barely above. It is not sustainable. Some 79% do not have a sick pay scheme. These figures come from the Pobal annual survey, so there is no doubt regarding the validation of these points. They need proper pay and a living wage, and they also need provision for sick pay.

This is an issue that is personal to me because, before taking this job, I worked as a SIPTU official trying to organise childcare workers. The Minister can imagine my shock when I found that thousands of them actually have to sign on each summer for unemployment payments. That is no way to treat these workers; it is no way to treat the sector.

There are two simple asks. First, I ask that the Minister would introduce a living wage guarantee. Ring-fenced funding is important because, while, to be fair, previous Governments increased funding, it is still way below where it should be at 25% of the European average. When funding has been increased, it has not reached its way to the pay packets of those workers, which, again, feeds into the cycle of people leaving. A survey by SIPTU earlier this year showed that only one third of graduates in this area intend to work in the sector. We need decent funding, a living wage guarantee and sick pay provision. A five-day sick pay provision would cost just €6 million and it would cost €30 million for a living wage guarantee.

I hope we will see new thinking, new proposals and a real commitment to these workers in next week's budget. I look forward to the Minister's response.

I thank the Senator for raising an issue that is of real concern to me. I acknowledge that there is a need for significant improvement in levels of pay and working conditions for practitioners working in early learning and care and school-age childcare services. The level of pay they receive at the moment does not reflect the value of the work they do for children, for families and for the wider society. In addition, low pay and poor working conditions have an impact on the quality of the childcare provided through their effect on the recruitment and retention of qualified staff. The quotations highlighted by the Senator illustrate this well.

As the Senator knows, the State is not the employer. These services are private businesses and my Department does not pay the wages of staff who work in early learning and care services, and does not determine the working conditions for staff, including sick pay. My Department has, however, over a number of years provided a range of supports to service providers to enable them to improve wages and working conditions in the sector. These supports have included: year-on-year increases in State funding for service providers; higher capitation payments for graduates and inclusion co-ordinators working in the sector; support for school-age childcare, which will make it easier for providers to offer full-time, full-year employment contracts; and a pilot measure to support continuing professional development.

The most recent data on pay and conditions, as of May 2019, indicates that the average hourly pay in early learning and care and school-age childcare is €12.55, which was a 3% increase on the previous year and is higher than the national living wage of €12.30. However, I accept there is wide variation in wages in the sector, and approximately 60% of early learning and care practitioners in 2019 earned less than €12.30 per hour, the living wage.

As the Senator said, many of them work part-time and are on temporary contracts. I am still awaiting the 2020 data on wages, which should be available from the annual Pobal early years sector profile. However, I agree with the Senator that the wages in the sector are still too low. In the medium term, the expert group on the new funding model and the steering group of the workforce development plan are both considering future policy tools that will impact on the workforce in early learning and care and school age childcare services. The new funding model is looking at ways in which some services can be funded to meet additional requirements on the quality, affordability and accessibility of services. These could include requirements in relation to wages or working conditions.

In the short term, the programme for Government includes a commitment to the creation of a joint labour committee, which could offer a mechanism through which a pay agreement for the sector could be achieved. Soon after I was appointed, I met with the Senator's former colleagues in SIPTU and we discussed this issue. Officials from my Department are in regular contact with SIPTU representatives on the issue.

The Senator may be aware that on the employer side, Childhood Services Ireland, under the auspices of IBEC, has been formed. I welcome this development as it is good to have a clear voice on the employer side and on the trade union side through SIPTU to enable us to advance matters through the mechanism of a joint labour committee. I am happy to support both sides in any way I can in doing so.

I am aware that many childcare professionals do not benefit from a sick pay scheme at the moment. I had a meeting last week with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, and this was one of the issues we discussed. At that meeting ICTU noted that the Tánaiste and the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation are working on proposals to address the wider lack of sick pay across the economy. This is something that I welcome, and my Department is engaging with the Tánaiste's officials with a view to including childcare professionals within any national scheme.

I am grateful to the Senator for allowing me to update this House on the steps being taken to advance these two important issues for childcare professionals. I will continue to work with the sector to advance them. I am happy to come back to the House to speak to these issues as we move forward.

I thank the Minister for his response. I have a couple of points to make. I acknowledge that the engagement with ICTU is important and I welcome it. We need to see ICTU play a key role in addressing these two key issues and I know it is willing to do so.

I refer to the issue of pay. It should be clarified that the most common position is that of early years assistant, and the average wage of that post, according to 2020 data which I have seen, is €11.46 per hour. Indeed, the Minister has acknowledged that 60% of people earn below that living wage.

I wish to challenge the Minister on one key point. He has said that the State is not the employer, but the fact of the matter is that his Department determines 60% of funding, not just in terms of wages, but in terms of the overall sector as a whole. That gives the Minister a fundamental say because the service could not exist without this crucial departmental support. I put it to the Minister that he must go beyond what the civil servants are telling him, and work for that living wage guarantee. It can be done and it needs the political will to do so. The sector will buy into it if it comes from the Minister. I hope that in the time between now and the announcement of the budget next Tuesday, the Minister will reflect on it.

As regards the overall funding of the sector, I am focused on the report of the expert funding group. I have contacted it since taking on this role as Minister. I have asked that we will have something very clear by the middle of next year to allow three major pieces of work: the expert funding group, the workforce development plan and the organisational review of the entire sector. I am hoping for those three pieces of work to be ready for the middle of next year. When we have those three key pieces of information, we can make major decisions at that point about the future of childcare. While I do not agree with the Senator's statement that it is in crisis, I accept that there are significant pressures within the system. I am determined to address those pressures over the course of my Ministry. I look forward to continuing to engage with the Senator and everyone within the sector to achieve that.

Disabled Drivers and Passengers Scheme

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Butler.

I thank the Minister of State for taking the time to attend the House today. I wish to raise with her the disabled person's parking card, the primary medical certificate and the regulations governing the eligibility for them. Both of them come under the remit of her Department. When I addressed the House on this subject on Make Way Day, I spoke about the experiences of a constituent who is well known to me and the hardship experienced by that person. Much to my surprise, and perhaps horror, I have been contacted since then by many people who are experiencing the same problems and are in a similar position.

I am asking for a review of the eligibility criteria on the basis that if one holds a primary medical certificate, one is entitled to the disabled person's parking card but must still automatically apply for it. More importantly, from that card flows an exemption from the payment of VAT, motor tax and vehicle registration fees, as well as various reliefs that assist in the purchase or adaptation of a car for people who are drivers with disabilities, or who have a passenger with a disability.

The eligibility criteria, as they stand, are based on the medical grounds of disability for people who are severely or permanently disabled. Assessment is made with reference to a particular set of criteria, including the loss of both legs, restricted use of lower limbs or the loss of both hands or arms. Those who are not taken into account include people who have lost one upper limb or have a severe debilitating or life-changing disability and are falling short of meeting the criteria. The constituent to whom I previously referred had an appalling accident when she was in her 20s. She is now a number of decades older. She did not receive any compensation at the time, in the circumstances arising from the accident, but she has lost one arm. This affects her washing, dressing, typing, managing her phone, toileting and driving. She has to pay for all the adaptations made to the car herself. She gets no relief from the State in this regard because she does not fit any of the criteria. Every minute of every day, she is reminded of her disability in an ambidextrous world.

The qualifying criteria, as currently prescribed in legislation, are far too stringent. They require a level of disability that appears to be deliberately designed to ensure exclusion. Where is the compassion for those who have lost one arm? In this particular constituent's case, it was the result of an accident, but in subsequent representations made to me by others, the disabilities have arisen from cancer and the treatment of same. Therefore, there is a wide group of people included in this cohort.

Since I submitted this Commencement matter, I have done some research. It appears that this issue has been raised frequently in the Seanad and in parliamentary questions, especially over the last decade. I note that a review was last undertaken in 2011. The response is always that to widen the criteria would open the floodgates to payments. As the Minister of State is smiling, I anticipate that I am about to get the same response.

I ask for consideration to be given to the introduction of a graduated relief system, which would provide for differing degrees of disability that entitle claimants to differing levels of relief. This would demonstrate compassion, without opening prohibitive floodgates. The situation as it stands at the moment is far too stark and is devoid of empathy. It is not supportive or cognisant of the very real and genuine impairments that are experienced.

Before I start, I wish to congratulate Leas-Chathaoirleach on his appointment. It is a significant honour for him and his family, and is well deserved. Déanaim comhghairdeas leis.

I thank the Minister of State. Her remarks are appreciated.

I thank Senator Seery Kearney for her question. She has made her points very well in relation to this issue, which has been raised on many occasions in both Houses. I am responding on behalf of my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton, who is unavailable this morning.

The disabled parking scheme operates by segregating a proportion of public parking bays for the use of disabled parking permit holders. These permits, which are also known as European parking cards or disabled parking badges, are available to people living in Ireland whose mobility is severely and permanently restricted, whether they are drivers or passengers.

The intention of the permit, and of the disabled parking scheme more generally, is to provide access to parking bays of sufficient size in close proximity to important services such as post offices, banks, pharmacies and shops for people for whom access to such services would be denied if they could not park and disembark, either because of the size of a parking bay or because they could not park within a short distance of a service due to their limited mobility.

An automatic entitlement to a disabled parking permit is extended to holders of the primary medical certificate, including those who are affected by dwarfism or restricted growth, those without the use of one or both legs, and those without both hands or both arms. The Senator has raised the case of her constituent who has lost one limb. The criteria there are quite clear and stark that the entitlement applies to those without the use of one or both legs and those without both hands or both arms. This entitlement is granted on the grounds that each of the disabilities encompassed by the primary medical certificate clearly involves a severe impairment of the ability to walk as a result of compromised or absent lower limbs in some cases, or severely disrupted balance in the case of those missing both arms. The permit is also available to applicants who are registered as blind with the National Council for the Blind in Ireland, so as to minimise their interaction with motor traffic and maximise their safety in navigating from a parking space to the entrance of their destination.

In 2010, the Department of Transport conducted a review of the disabled parking scheme, in consultation with various stakeholders. One of the central issues examined in the course of this review was eligibility for the scheme. Disability groups, in particular, were unhappy at the fact that some people were being issued with disabled parking permits because they had particular medical conditions rather than an actual mobility impairment. As a result of the review, the scheme was revised so that permits are now given on the basis of mobility impairment rather than the diagnosis of a particular condition or illness. This is in line with the original intention of the scheme and prioritises accessible parking for those who need it the most.

The possibility of extending the eligibility criteria for the scheme to include people with non-mobility-related physical disabilities, or those with certain forms of intellectual or cognitive impairment, has been raised with the Department of Transport on a number of occasions. Officials from the Department have consulted extensively with the joint issuing authorities of the scheme, the Disabled Drivers Association of Ireland and the Irish Wheelchair Association, on the matter. In light of this consultation, there are no plans at present to change the current criteria or to carry out a fresh review to that end.

I take on board what the Senator has said about graduated or different stages of relief for different degrees of disability and I will bring that point back to the Minister, as well as her point about people missing one limb. She made the point very well and it is an issue I have come across in my own constituency.

I appreciate and hear that the Minister of State recognises the challenge. What we are really honing in on are the qualifying criteria for the primary medical certificate. I accept the need to confine the parking permit to people with genuine mobility issues. I get that link and the point was very well made. However, the parking permit is inextricably linked to the adaptation of cars for driving purposes and the grant aid for that. Consequently, if a person is missing one upper limb he or she still has to adapt a car. Such people may be able to walk the distance to shopping or work but they still have to incur the expenditure and we need to address that element more so than the criteria. We need to decouple those aspects from each other and circle that in red. I had considered that this might be a matter for the Minister of State with responsibility for disability, Deputy Rabbitte. I will pursue it with her as well but I appreciate the Minister of State's response.

I assure the Senator that the Department of Transport is very aware of the complex challenges facing the various groups she mentioned today, whether people with physical disabilities that do not directly affect mobility or people with autism or intellectual disabilities and their parents and carers. I take on board the Senator's point, which she made very well, that the primary medical certificate sets out the criteria, which are quite stringent given that the person applying must have lost two upper limbs as opposed to one. I will take on board the Senator's comments and pass them back to the Minister.

Covid-19 Tests

I welcome the Minister of State. It is good to see her in the House. I thank her for the opportunity to raise this issue, which many people have been contacting me about in recent days and weeks. Indeed, many of my colleagues across all parties have been raising it as well. I must stress the disbelief I felt when I heard that the Covid centre in Dundalk was to close and that Ardee was to become the testing hub for Louth. The county has the two largest towns in the country and neither town will have a Covid testing centre. This comes at a time when the electoral area of Dundalk-Carlingford has, unfortunately, one of the highest rates of Covid in the country, with a 14-day average of 132 per 100,000. The HSE has closed the testing centre in Muirhevnamor in Dundalk and the new testing centre will be located in St. Brigid's in Ardee, which is 25 km away. To me and most of the population in north Louth, this does not make any sense. According to a recent statement issued by the HSE, the move is due to an assessment of locations undertaken as part of the HSE test and trace operational model. Ardee was found to best meet the criteria for a testing centre in Louth as travel times from both Dundalk and Drogheda are less than 25 minutes. I feel the rationale the HSE is using is very narrow.

I absolutely accept the HSE's assertion that the hospital in Ardee will provide fit-for-purpose facilities and when fully operational will provide increased capacity. It will be a great service for the geographical area it practically serves. However, this new location will mean that people from Dundalk and north Louth will have to travel further if they are referred for testing. Someone living in Omeath in north County Louth will have to make a round trip of over 90 km. When we are supposed to be limiting our movements and contacts, it does not really make sense for the HSE to send people on a 90 km trip. A person from north Louth going to Ardee might need to take a toilet break, for example, and will use public facilities, possibly putting other people at risk. The people of Dundalk, who could have gone to a testing centre minutes from their homes, are now travelling with symptoms to Ardee, a town with low numbers of Covid cases and a 14-day average of 27.6 per 100,000. While the testing centre is welcome for Ardee and its surrounds, it is impractical for the citizens of north Louth, especially considering the high incidence of cases in north Louth.

It often seems that the Border region and Border towns are overlooked and this has to end. The Border has been there for 100 years now and it is time to remember these inhabitants. We have problems with many health services. It could take eight hours to get an ambulance to north Louth as well. This lack of thought regarding the location of the Border needs to change.

I am taking this question on behalf of the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly. I thank the Senator for asking this particular question. As today is our first day since the whole country entered into level 3, it is very timely. A comprehensive, reliable and responsive testing and tracing operation is central to our public health strategy for containing and slowing the spread of Covid-19. Capacity is in place to test 15,000 people a day and overall the system is working well. Rigorous contact tracing, automatic testing of close contacts, serial testing in high-risk environments and large-scale testing in outbreak situations means we are proactively finding more cases than we would have previously. In recent weeks, we have increased resources significantly as demand has increased. We are testing more people than ever before, especially in the community, with over 93,000 people swabbed in the last week. This included the opening of additional community testing centres and mobile pop-up testing units, significantly increased contact tracing teams and increased laboratory testing.

A new static testing and swabbing centre in Ardee commenced operations yesterday, 6 October, and together with the facility in Slane is offering test appointments to members of the public from Louth and Meath seven days a week. Combined, they offer in excess of 750 appointments daily. The Ardee centre replaces the previous temporary centre in Dundalk. Ardee is the default location for appointments for those referred from Louth. If there are capacity issues in Ardee, the centre in Slane will come into play. However, capacity in Ardee will ultimately be approximately 50% higher than the previous Dundalk facility so it is not forecast that this will happen.

The HSE advises that current demand nationally and also in the Louth and Meath centres is being met and at present there are no plans for a pop-up testing centre in Drogheda. However, referral demand in any area is subject to ongoing review by the HSE and evaluation against available capacity. This includes actions such as extending opening hours and adding testing stations to existing sites.

The increased capacity in Louth is a clear example of the response to demand being actioned. For example on 16 September, 761 appointments were offered across the two Louth and Meath facilities, whereas two weeks previously, those centres offered a combined 450 appointments per day, approximately. In the last seven days in the entire CHO 8 area, 57% of referrals were offered a same-day appointment with a further 40% getting an appointment the next day. This represents a median time of six hours from referral to appointment.

The HSE is now finalising a future model for testing and tracing. This will aim to deliver a patient-centred, accessible, consistent and flexible service. It includes recruitment of a permanent workforce which has already commenced and a range of other service improvements which will be rolled out quickly. Transition to the new model is under way and will continue through the autumn. As part of this transition a comprehensive assessment of community testing and swabbing locations is being undertaken by the HSE. The executive is examining the suitability and sustainability of the locations as long-term testing centres as well as travel times to test centres.

I take on board the points Senator McGreehan made about people travelling, with some facing a 90 km round trip to certain facilities. The HSE is constantly seeking to improve the responsiveness of the testing and tracing system and will keep demand and capacity under review.

I thank the Minister of State and I accept that there has been a great increase in the availability of testing. The main problem with the testing in Ardee is not the capacity or sustainability, or the service itself, but the fact that it is so far away from a lot of the constituents of north Louth. I will not be satisfied until there is a testing centre in Dundalk, which is the main town in County Louth. I accept that the testing service is excellent but it does not have the geographic spread required to suit the people of north Louth.

I thank the Senator again. As I stated earlier, the HSE advises that it is currently meeting all testing demand nationally and across the end-to-end tracing process, with adequate swabbing and laboratory capacity. The HSE has had capacity to conduct approximately 100,000 tests since May, about 30% of which was off-shore. However, over the summer months, it has built laboratory capacity up to 100,000 per week on the island. In addition, the HSE has added surge capacity of 2,000 per day from its German laboratory partner.

I appreciate the constructive way in which Senator McGreehan has raised this matter and take on board the points she has made. She has acknowledged that the centre in Ardee is working very well and that there is sufficient capacity there. The issue is the distance people from north County Louth have to travel to reach the centre and I will relay her concerns in this regard to the Minister for Health.

Care Services

I welcome the Minister of State back to the Chamber. She has been a most frequent visitor since the Seanad reconvened and she was appointed to her position. I know of her compassion for older people. In her past life as a Deputy she was co-chairman of the all-party committee on dementia and did incredible work on the issue. We could not have anybody more suited to the position she now occupies.

As 1 October was International Day for Older Persons, I felt it was appropriate to table a Commencement matter on the issue of people dealing with dementia. My concern is not just for people with dementia but also those who care for them. There are approximately 66,000 people in this country with dementia and for every one of those people there are at least three others impacted as carers. We are talking here about mothers, fathers, grandparents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, neighbours and friends. There is no community that is not impacted by dementia. Things were difficult for these people before Covid-19 but the pandemic has totally exacerbated the challenges that people with dementia and their carers face.

Two reports were commissioned by the Alzheimer Society of Ireland in April and late June to assess the impact of Covid-19 and the results are frightening. The surveys were carried out among carers and those with dementia. Following on from that, the society launched its pre-budget submission for 2021. A number of Members of the Oireachtas attended the launch. Carers were represented by a woman called Denise. To hear her speaking about carers being at breaking point and outlining the long-term impacts from both a mental and physical perspective would draw a tear from a stone. A man called Kevin who has dementia also spoke. I know that the Minister of State has spoken to him previously but listening to his concern, not just for himself but for his wife and those around him, was incredibly touching. However, these people need more than sympathy; they need support. First, we need to talk about the commencement of day services. I accept that today is day one of level 3 restrictions nationwide but that pushes the recommencement of services out even further. We need to support family carers in their own homes through enhanced in-home supports. Additional funding must be provided in the budget for appropriate homecare and for additional dementia carers. I thank the Minister of State for her efforts to ensure that there will be ten additional dementia advisors, bringing the total to 19. However, I would argue that every county should have a dementia advisor. We also need extra funding for infrastructure for those with dementia. They need joy in their lives which is made possible through social interaction with their peers. The same is true of their carers. They need an opportunity to have time for themselves, as do other family members. These are three key areas that must be addressed in the upcoming budget.

I thank Senator O'Loughlin for raising this matter. As she has said, this is an area on which I have worked tirelessly in the past as co-chairman of the all-party committee on dementia. I congratulate Senator O'Loughlin on taking over that role and I know she will do fantastic work.

I am fully aware that Covid-19 has placed significant additional pressures on people with dementia and their families. I recently convened a round table discussion with carers. Unfortunately we had to conduct it online and reduce the numbers involved but I specifically asked to speak to people caring for people with dementia and mental health challenges and particularly to people who were full-time carers and did not work outside the home. To be honest, listening to them was very hard. Their stories were very stark and there is no doubt that carers have really been challenged in the last six to seven months. The Covid-19 restrictions have meant that many carers are spending the whole day at home. Every single one of us, as representatives of our constituents in both Houses of the Oireachtas, are acutely aware of that. We also know that community services such as day care play an important role in enabling older people to continue to live in their communities and maintain their social connections. These services contribute to positive ageing and better overall health. However, the introduction of physical distancing, isolation and restricted contact with family and loved ones has changed the usual dynamics of social interaction.

The suspension of day services has been particularly difficult for people living with dementia and their family carers, whose usual routines have been disrupted. Against this background, the HSE is continuing to work closely with providers and community staff to identify where service is most required. It has also been undertaking risk assessments of local services. This is to ensure, insofar as possible, that day care services can resume in the context of Covid-19 and having regard to public health advice.

In the meantime, my Department and the HSE have ensured that there has been a continued focus on the needs of people living with dementia since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Through the HSE's "Understand Together" campaign on dementia, a range of initiatives and resources have been developed. Community services have been adapted to provide a flexible response that meets the needs of people with dementia during the Covid-19 pandemic. Referrals are being made to community supports, including the Alzheimer Society of Ireland, ASI, which does phenomenal work, a dementia adviser service and the local authority community response forums.

A majority of the HSE's memory technology resource rooms are now providing an adapted service through telephone and video assessment and consultation. While home visits have, of necessity, been restricted, the HSE uses prioritisation and screening measures to identify clients in need of home visits.

My Department and the HSE are undertaking work to determine the current level of service delivery in the community and to set out plans, which will include the required associated capacity, to resume services, including day services, in line with the roadmap for reopening society and business.

In addition, the ASI continues to support people through its live chat service, national helpline, home care, dementia adviser service and online family carer training. Alzheimer cafes have moved online and a new nurse line initiative has been launched with backing from the HSE and my Department. This gives people with dementia and family carers the opportunity to book a one-to-one session with a dementia nurse or a dementia adviser.

I also welcome the fact that the HSE's winter plan includes provision for a targeted work programme to double the existing home support hours in order to fully support those with high and moderate levels of frailty, including people living with dementia. The winter plan also provides funding to enable the recruitment of ten dementia advisers, which will bring the total number of dementia advisers to 28. As we headed into the budget last year, and for many years previously, we had eight such advisers. We finally made a breakthrough last year and secured ten. The additional ten to be recruited will bring the number to 20. I will talk about the Senator's other budget proposals in the next session.

I thank the Minister of State. It is welcome that the existing support hours are to be doubled in order to fully support those who need it, including people with dementia. The new dementia advisers are also welcome. An average of 11 people per day are diagnosed with dementia. That means that, since this Government came into being 102 days ago, approximately 1,122 people have been diagnosed. The number is growing all of the time.

The words carers used about their own roles in the survey include "devastation", "torturous", "exhausting", "depressing" and "incredibly stressful". We have to bear that in mind, as I know the Minister of State does. In my own county of Kildare, almost 1,500 people have dementia. We also have almost 4,000 carers. Over the past six years, day care support services have moved to four different places. The day care service in Monasterevin moved to Moore Abbey, then to Dunmurry and then on to Mill Lane in Naas in north Kildare. I have been to Dunmurry and Moore Abbey and have seen how wonderful these spaces were for those who were there. It is crucial that more money be spent to ensure permanent infrastructure to support those with dementia and their carers.

As the Minister of State rises for the final supplementary, I join her in congratulating Senator O'Loughlin on being made chairperson of the joint committee.

I thank the Senator very much. Her points are very well made. In addition to the winter plan, which I mentioned earlier, some €22 million has been provided in the 2020 national service plan for dementia-specific services including more than €7.5 million in funding for dementia-specific home care packages and the extension of the dementia adviser services, with the additional ten advisers to be recruited this year. This should make a significant difference.

Support is to be given to key voluntary organisations such as the Alzheimer Society of Ireland, which has adapted its services to meet the needs of people living with dementia since the public health emergency began and for whose work I once again thank it. In addition to dementia-specific home care packages, people living with dementia can also benefit from standard home support services, which have a budget of €490 million this year.

As the Senator will have seen in the winter plan, which we will discuss in the Seanad later, €139 million has been made available for extra home care supports, which will cover an extra 4.7 million hours. The supports will, of course, also be offered to people with dementia. In addition, more than €6 million in dormant accounts funding has been secured since 2016 for a range of dementia-related project as part of the process of implementing the national dementia strategy.

Dementia has a prominent place in the programme for Government but I am also committed to ensuring that people with dementia can access the right services and supports to enable them to continue living in their own communities. It is an appropriate time for the Senator to raise this issue as I was in budget talks yesterday and this issue was discussed in the context of the Estimates. I am acutely aware of the challenges involved.

Hospital Facilities

I speak today on behalf of the people of the mid-west including those in Limerick, Tipperary and, particularly, Clare. Clare is a county which I know well. It has a population of approximately 110,000 people. The problem is that, for the last number of years, the accident and emergency department at University Hospital Limerick in Dooradoyle has been constantly overcrowded, particularly during the winter months. Last year was one of the worst years for crowding at the hospital's accident and emergency department. At one point, the figures ranged from 80 to almost 100. Many of these people are elderly, vulnerable and extremely sick. They are left on trolleys while waiting for a bed in the hospital. It goes without saying that, once they get a bed in the hospital, they are treated very well and the care offered to them is exemplary. The problem is that they are waiting on trolleys on corridors and around the vicinity of the accident and emergency unit in very challenging and very difficult circumstances. I am sure the Minister will agree that is not acceptable in this world or in this country.

In November 2017, the then Minister, Deputy Harris, committed funding for the University of Limerick Hospital Group to build a 60-bed modular unit as a starting point to deal with the difficulties at the accident and emergency facility in the hospital in Limerick. That money was sanctioned, made available and ring-fenced. The years 2018 and 2019 have passed and 2020 is about to pass but the unit is still not up and running. Three years is a long time. A significant amount of facilities could be built in three years. The delay is completely unacceptable. Will the Minister of State confirm the date on which the new 60-bed modular unit will be up and running and when patients will be able to avail of it? The delay is totally unacceptable. I look forward to getting a specific date for when the unit at Limerick hospital will open.

I thank the Senator for his question. It is very timely as we head into the winter months and face the normal challenges we see in our acute hospitals. I welcome the opportunity to update the House on the new 60-bed ward block at University Hospital Limerick.

The hospital is a model 4 hospital which provides major surgery, cancer care treatment and emergency care in the region as well as a range of other medical, diagnostic and therapeutic services. As the Senator has said, it covers Clare, Limerick, north Tipperary and other areas. All critical care services are located here and it has one of the busiest emergency departments in Ireland. It provides the only 24-7 emergency service in the University of Limerick Hospital Group.

University Hospital Limerick is one of the eight designated cancer centres in the country. This 60-bed ward block will have three wards comprising of 20 single room occupancy, with en-suite facilities, two of which will be full isolation facilities and will provide care and treatment for patients from admission to discharge. The 60 single rooms will improve patient comfort, safety, privacy and dignity, and assist with the management of infection control in the hospital. The additional 60 beds will also directly increase bed capacity, allowing patients access to an increased overall bed stock and improve patient flow across the hospital. The nub of the Senator's question is on timelines and the 60-bed ward block at University Hospital Limerick is expected to be completed by 30 October 2020. Once the three 20-bed inpatient wards in the new building are stocked with consumables and given a final clean, they are expected to be ready to be put into operation by Monday, 9 November 2020.

The health capital allocation in 2020 is €774 million for the construction and equipping of health facilities. Additional capital of €125 million was voted in by Government to cover Covid-19 infrastructural works. The HSE capital plan determines the projects that can progress, having regard to the available capital funding, the number of large national capital projects currently under way and the relevant priority of each project.

I reiterate that the 60-bed ward is expected to be completed by 30 October, at which point the three 20-bed inpatient wards in the new building will be stocked with consumables and given a final clean. They are expected to be ready to be put into operation by Monday, 9 November 2020 so I am sure the people of that area will welcome this news today.

It is extremely welcome news that the Minister of State has confirmed to me in the House today that the new 60-bed modular unit will be open in University Hospital Limerick on Monday, 9 November. That is a specific date and commitment from the Minister of State and the Government. This is extremely welcome and will come as great news for the people of County Clare, which I represent, and also the people of Limerick and north Tipperary.

This project has been going on for a long time and the difficulties and challenges at the accident and emergency unit at University Hospital Limerick have been well aired and documented over the years. This is a clear Government response to deal with the challenges and difficulties there. The investment has been made, the building has been completed, it will be up and running by Monday, 9 November and it will be accepting patients from that day on. That is great news and I thank the Minister of State on behalf of the people of the mid-west region for delivering this good news today.

The Government is committed to developing acute hospital services and infrastructure. University Hospital Limerick is an integral part of the University of Limerick hospital group, providing hospital services and care to the populations of Limerick, Clare and north Tipperary. The hospital provides quality patient care, delivered safely by skilled and valued staff through the best use of their available resources. This is achieved through the commitment, hard work and professionalism of all the hospital staff.

From a construction perspective, the new ward block should be ready to be operational by Monday 9 November 2020. I wish to commend all those involved on their hard work and patience in seeing the much-needed additional capacity for University Hospital Limerick come to fruition. I wish to thank Senator Conway also for his constructive approach and because I know he has raised this many times.

Sitting suspended at 11.45 a.m. and resumed at 12 noon.