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Seanad Éireann debate -
Monday, 21 Jun 2021

Vol. 277 No. 4

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Travel Documents

I thank the Minister of State for his attendance in the House this morning to discuss this matter. I wish to raise the importance of Ireland’s implementation of the EU digital Covid certificate, or what we used to call the EU green certificate. As we are all aware, the Government has signed up to the EU Covid certificate with a start date of July 19, albeit two weeks later than the rest of our European colleagues. The certificate has been developed by the EU Commission over the last six months under their plan entitled “A common path to a safe and sustained re-opening”. The importance of reopening our skies and gaining back our crucial connectivity cannot be understated. Hundreds of thousands of families are relying on us to get this reopening right. Therefore, it must be both safe and easy, and we must get unhindered access to travel.

When we talk about the reopening of travel, it is often inaccurately framed, either in the media or on our social media, as involving young people who are desperate to head off to Ibiza. Of course, there is nothing wrong with wanting to go to Ibiza - I would nearly like to go myself - but it ignores the far greater impact on families that have been torn apart throughout the Continent. There are grandparents who have not seen new arrivals who have been born in the last 15 or 16 months. There are daddies who, in many cases, have not seen their children and have missed birthday parties. There are many more heart-wrenching examples. The introduction of the Covid certificate will be a game changer for these people. While I am on the subject, I thank the Tánaiste for his strong commitment to the implementation of the certificate. There were suggestions last week that we would exclude young people from accessing the certificate. That would be reprehensible and incredibly disrespectful to our young people and I am glad to hear that this is not being entertained.

We are four weeks away from Irish implementation of the certificate. The lack of information and significant level of disinformation circling in our social media channels is a real problem. I wish to hear in the Minister of State's response, if possible, details about the logistics of the certificate.

So much of the debate around the return of international travel to date has come from the public health sphere. Obviously, the balance of risk taken into account by those in that sphere is different from that taken into account by the Government. What we really need to hear about the certificate is how it is going to work, how Irish citizens are going to get certificates, who will issue them, when people can apply for them, whether our testing and vaccination systems will feed into the process and if so, how.

I look forward to hearing the Minister of State's response. These are the issues in respect of which information needs to be laid out. I am sure the Minister of State will do this. If it is not already planned, can we have a public information campaign in order that people can dispel the memory of what happened over the weekend when they thought they needed PCR tests on their way out of the country as well as on their way back in, as opposed to just meeting the requirements of the countries to which they are travelling?

The Senator is correct. There has been a lot of disinformation, not all of which has been intentional. Sometimes, ideas start to float around and need to be clarified so I thank the Senator for bringing this issue to the attention of the House. I always welcome the opportunity to speak in the Seanad.

As the Senator is aware, an EU digital Covid certificate is digital proof that a person has been vaccinated against Covid-19, has received a negative test result or has recovered from Covid-19. There are three separate certificates for those three events. Being in receipt of an EU digital Covid certificate should enable the holder to be exempt from restrictions on freedom of movement. However, member states do have the right to impose additional travel restrictions on the holders of an EU digital Covid certificate provided they are necessary and proportionate to safeguard public health. In such a case, as a reaction to new variants of concern, the member state would have to notify the Commission and all other member states to justify this decision. Each country will be responsible for issuing certificates where vaccination, a positive test for recovery or a negative test has taken place in that country.

In Ireland, the Government recognises how stretched the HSE is in terms of trying to support the vaccination roll-out and business as usual while recovering from the damage caused by the recent ransomware attack. Consequently, we are looking at how we can best support the HSE with these new obligations. For example, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, through the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer, is working with the private sector to develop the system to support the negative test certificates so we will be issuing those certificates to say that a person has tested negative in the previous three days. However, the Department of Health and the HSE are responsible for issuing vaccination certificates and recovery certificates.

The EU digital Covid certificate contains only the necessary key information such as name, date of birth, date of issuance, relative information about vaccine test or recovery and a unique identifier. This data remains on the certificate and is not stored or retained when a certificate is verified in another member state. For verification purposes, only the validity and authenticity of the certificate is checked by the person verifying it who issued and signed it. All health data remains with the member state that issued an EU digital Covid certificate. The system is logical. Each EU digital Covid certificate will contain a quick response, QR, code with a digital signature to protect against falsification. When the certificate is checked, the QR code is scanned and the signature is verified. The signature can be checked using special software that can run from an app on a phone or any other device that can read a QR code.

Each issuing body has its own digital signature key that will be securely stored. We are only planning to have one or possibly two for our certificates. The European Commission has built a gateway through which the certificate signatures from each member state can be verified across the EU. It is important to note that the personal data of a certificate owner does not pass through the gateway because this is not necessary to verify the digital signature.

EU digital Covid certificates can be stored on mobile devices, although citizens can request paper versions if they need them. Both versions will have a QR code containing essential information as well as a digital signature to make sure the certificate is authentic. Member states have agreed on a common design that can be used for the electronic and paper versions to facilitate recognition. I am pleased to advise that the Irish certificate has been designed and the digital signature has already been tested with the EU. It is important that we stress test the overall process. We need to develop the most efficient way to enable travellers to be checked before departing the island and to enable visitors or those returning to be checked on entry to Ireland. To that end, the Government has set up a group of stakeholder Departments to work on the processes. This group is also liaising with other key stakeholders such as the carriers and testers. A great deal of work is required within very challenging timeframes to enable the system to work properly.

I am confident that Ireland will be ready for 18 July, however. I commend everyone who has worked so hard during our preparations and who will continue to do so until everything is ready. Everyone recognises the importance of this initiative in helping the return to some form of normality. We are all committed to continuing to work closely in a co-ordinated manner, with the European Commission and member states, to support EU citizens' right to free movement with the roll-out of digital Covid certificates and the further opening up of travel from third countries.

I thank the Minister of State. Respectfully, I have no doubt about ours or the Minister of State's intent but he has told me that we are still at design stage. I asked the question of how somebody would even apply. Are we going to log on to a website? Obviously, that has not been decided yet. These are the issues. How will it work? How will Irish citizens apply for a certificate? Who will give it to them?

The Minister of State alluded to the fact that there will be three certificates. Will we go to three different places? Will I go to the HSE to get my vaccination and to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to get my digital certificate? Again, I am not trying to be smart. We are trying to give clarity. I appreciate that he said that it is still at design stage. When does he believe he will be in a position to make a definitive statement and give clear and unambiguous information as to how a person will log on to a certain website or queue outside an office on 18 July?

I feel like I am banging my head off a brick wall trying to get an antigen pilot test done here in order that we can be the equivalent to our European counterparts. In the absence of getting the pilot, the Minister of State alluded to a fund of €100 million from the EU to support the costs of PCR tests. What plans do we have? Will introduce a voucher scheme for Irish travellers be introduced so that when they return to Ireland, they will not have to pay a very expensive cost for PCR testing? Will people be given a voucher to help towards those costs? We are encouraging people who are vaccinated to travel but they may have children who cannot get vaccinated. What will we do to help those people to be able to allow them to reunite their families this summer?

First, the Senator asked how people apply. In the case of a test certificate, people go to an accredited laboratory, which sends their certificate to them. They give their email address at the time and it is sent on to them. People choose whether they want it on paper or on their phone. How do people apply for a vaccination certificate or recovery certificate? The HSE will contact people by email and they can opt to download it from there. There is, therefore, no requirement in that regard.

Data were gathered very carefully all the way through the vaccination stage and stored in the COVAX system, which the HSE is using to keep track of who has been vaccinated and who has tested positive in the past nine months. Those data have been analysed. I would not say we are at design stage. The specification was laid out by the EU over the past six months or so.

The Senator asked about antigen tests and the costs and so forth. A person can have an antigen test on his or her certificate and if somebody accepts that in another country, that is great. If the Minister for Health and the Government decide to accept antigen tests for people coming in, they will be accepted too. The antigen tests, however, must be performed by either a medical professional or somebody who is qualified to do so. The current rate is not that much cheaper than a PCR test so that is something to bear in mind.

School Accommodation

I thank the Cathaoirleach's office for choosing this Commencement matter. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, to the Chamber. To set the scene, Barna is a popular place to live. As I am sure she will be aware, it is on the outskirts of Galway city. It is a coastal town that has experienced rapid growth over the past 20 years. The 2016 census recorded a population of 2,000. The population projection is set to increase by 750 people by 2028 under the draft county development plan presently on display. In that plan, Barna is part of the metropolitan hierarchy.

It is connected to the Mutton Island sewage plant and, therefore, future development is pretty much guaranteed. While it is situated in County Galway, it is the closest urban area to Galway city.

Scoil Shéamais Naofa primary school is situated on the R336 coast road. It was built in 1980 and its enrolment at present is 259 pupils. The school is on a restricted site on a busy coast road, with heavy traffic and narrow footpaths. The building is outdated in terms of classroom size, layout and energy efficiency. The yard space is limited and is sloped, which results in pupils falling in wet or icy conditions and is particularly unsuitable for children with a physical disability.

Tá Bearna lonnaithe sa Ghaeltacht agus tá an scoil páirteach sa scéim aitheantais do scoileanna Gaeltachta. Tá 259 dalta ag freastal ar an scoil faoi láthair. Tógadh an scoil i 1980 agus níl sé suas chun dáta sa lá atá inniu ann ó thaobh fuinnimh, toirt na seomraí ranga, leagan amach an fhoirgnimh agus araile. Tá an scoil suite ar an mbóthar cósta R336, áit a bhfuil trácht trom, cosán cúng agus nach bhfuil aon áit sábháilte le dul trasna an bhóthair. Tá an Ghaeilge lárnach sa phobal agus ceadaíodh plean teanga do limistéir Bhearna agus Cnoc na Cathrach le déanaí.

The current draft county development plan includes a policy objective for the Barna metropolitan settlement plan to support the upgrading of or relocation of Scoil Shéamais Naofa to a more appropriate site within the plan boundary, which would facilitate increased pupil capacity and more expansive recreational facilities, with improved and safer access. This is similar to objectives in previous plans that have not come to pass. Lands suitable for the relocation of Scoil Shéamais Naofa, owned by community facilities in Galway County Council, have been identified off the main Moycullen road in the centre of Barna. These lands could be accessed via a continuation of the inner relief road in the town. This site would be more suitable than the existing school site, would provide more space, be safer and encourage more walking and cycling by children. The school in Barna is on a very busy road and it is of its time. It has a wonderful principal and staff providing a good standard of education. However, the site is too small for the school's current needs, given that the village is close to Galway city and is only going to grow, subject to zoning, the county development plan and the projections therein. What engagement has the Department had with the school's board of management regarding the possible relocation to an alternative site?

I thank the Senator for raising this issue. I will take this opportunity to outline the Department's perspective on this matter. Scoil Shéamais Naofa is a Catholic mixed all-Irish primary school under the patronage of the Bishop of Galway. In September 2020, the school had an enrolment of 259 pupils. I understand that enrolments in the school have fallen by 9% in the past five years. The school currently has a principal, ten mainstream teachers, three special education teachers, a part-time special education teacher and one temporary mainstream teacher. The Senator said that the standard of education in the school is good.

The current accommodation comprises ten mainstream classrooms, a general purpose room, library, principal's office, general office, staffroom and other ancillary accommodation. The Senator will be aware that, to plan for school provision and to analyse the relevant demographic data, the Department divides the country into 314 school planning areas. It uses a geographical information system and data from a range of sources, including child benefit and school enrolments, to identify where the pressure for school places throughout the country will arise and where additional school accommodation is needed at primary and post-primary levels. The most recent analysis undertaken by the Department projects that more than 60% of enrolments in the 314 school planning areas at primary level are stable or decreasing for the period to 2024.

Conversely, some 90% of the school planning areas at post-primary level are anticipated to have increased enrolments for the period to 2027. The level of demand across school planning areas with an increasing net requirement ranges from small to medium increases, which are likely to be accommodated by existing schools, to significant increases that may require additional provision. Where data indicate that additional provision is needed, the Department considers a number of options, including utilising existing capacity, extending a school's capacity, providing a new school or a combination thereof.

Scoil Shéamais Naofa is one of 36 primary schools in the Galway city school planning area. Following the most recent demographic exercise carried out by the Department, the demand for primary school places in that area is set to fall by at least 200 by 2024. The Senator will be aware that significant devolved funding was granted to Scoil Shéamais Naofa between 2009 and 2012 for the provision of permanent accommodation on its existing site, including two additional mainstream classrooms and two resource rooms, to meet its long-term accommodation needs. In 2016, the Department received an application from the school for a new 16-classroom school on a greenfield site. I understand that the school authority was informed at the time that the Department did not see the need for a new school building, as the level of accommodation available to the school was sufficient to meet its long-term needs and those of the school planning area. I understand that this remains the Department's view.

The Senator mentioned one of the reasons for which the school was seeking a replacement school building on a greenfield site, namely, traffic management issues. Road safety measures on a public road outside a school's vested site such as road signage, traffic calming measures and so on are matters for the relevant local authority.

I thank the Minister of State for her response, which was somewhat disappointing. The capacity of the school or local authority to improve safety is limited at that location. It is a busy regional route and there is no space to widen the road, provide a car park or implement safety measures. A new school is needed in the area. Not only would this increase the safety of children and their parents when dropping children off, but it would also increase the safety of the road itself.

The Minister of State mentioned the Galway city school planning area and capacity, but Barna is a self-contained community. Children living there in future will want to attend locally, not in Galway city, and they deserve to get the best education within their local community. If we are to encourage walking, cycling and so on, a new location for Scoil Shéamais Naofa is necessary, as the current site is not suitable. I ask that the Department re-engage with the school to examine the possibilities and with Galway County Council to get clarity on what it can do in respect of school safety. I do not believe that anything can be done on that site, but such an engagement would be positive.

I will bring the Senator's comments and concerns to the Minister, Deputy Foley. I understand what he is saying about traffic management. This is a matter for the local authority, but we have to ensure the safety of children. That is critical.

The Senator should bear in mind the demographic exercise that is being undertaken on projected growth. The fact that the decrease in demand for places in the area in question will be approximately 200 by 2024 does not augur well for trying to find a new school for the area.

I am struck by his comments about the school yard being on a slope, particularly as it relates to children with additional needs.

Again, I will take it back to the Department. We always want to encourage children to walk and cycle to school. This collaboration with the local authority is important. It is on a coast road and I do appreciate the issues the Senator raised.

Job Creation

Earlier this year, a briefing paper was produced on unemployment blackspots in the State. The CSO defined an unemployment blackspot as an electoral division whose labour force exceeded 200 persons and where the unemployment rate exceeded 27%. The results from this paper tell a shocking story of political failure to address issues of social inequality in Limerick going back 20 years. It is the front-page story of the Limerick Leader this morning.

We know that for many years unemployment has been systemic in certain parts of Limerick but this report highlights how the situation has steadily worsened even as the country as a whole enjoyed a return to economic growth. Indeed, if we did not know better, we would think that this research was exclusively on Limerick as opposed to a State-wide report.

In 2002, Limerick city did not appear in the top ten worst unemployment blackspots in the State but by 2006 it accounted for four out of the top ten areas. It worsened to a shocking seven areas out of the top ten by 2011. This latest report shows that Limerick had eight out of the ten areas with the highest unemployment rates in the State in April 2016. Its important to put these areas on the record of the House: unemployment in John's A was 58%; Galvone B, 45%; Ballynanty, 43.6%; Abbey C, 42%; Prospect, 41%; Glentworth, 40%; St. Lawrence, 40%; and Kileely, 39%.

These figures are a damning indictment of the political establishment's disregard for people living on working-class estates in Limerick city. It is especially damning in respect of long-standing public representatives, some of whom are still in office and one of whom was a Minister for Finance. The figures show that Limerick is the most socially divided city in the State. This is their legacy. Successive Governments have known the issues of disadvantage in Limerick but this most recent research highlights that things have been getting worse and not better for whole sections of our community across the north and south side of Limerick city.

It is clear that unemployment blackspots are increasing in the city and have been for 20 years. Something is seriously wrong and this cannot continue. We need new policies in place to ensure intervention by the State to give people the future they and their children deserve in terms of education, job opportunities and careers. We need targeted investment in each of these eight areas to tackle disadvantage and rebuild hope in these communities. We need to roll out new programmes of training, apprenticeships that can lead to real jobs within anchor institutions or those companies providing services to those institutions.

We need to ensure there is balanced regional development in the State. This has not been happening and the regions are declining. Specific to Limerick, we need to introduce IDA Ireland to the north side of Limerick city. IDA Ireland has rightly been lauded for successfully bringing foreign investment to Limerick but it has never brought a project to the north side of the city where many of these areas are located. Community wealth building is a policy that encourages such community development, with a much greater focus on local jobs and services. Sinn Féin is pushing this across the whole of Ireland and it is a model that has proven successful in other countries.

These polices must be put in place to start job growth because Limerick deserves better. Limerick people deserve better. They deserve better job opportunities, to grow communities and to build back better after this pandemic. The report highlights a shocking level of disadvantage and inequality in Limerick city. I look forward to the response of the Minister of State.

I am pleased to take this matter on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Robert Troy. I welcome the recent risk report on unemployment blackspots by the Houses of the Oireachtas Library and Research Service. This excellent research does a great job at highlighting the concentrated nature of employment blackspots. It is particularly worrying, as the Senator said, to note that in 2016, 17 out of a total of 38 electoral districts in the city of Limerick were unemployment blackspots and, moreover, that Limerick city also counted for eight out of the ten electoral districts with the highest unemployment rates in the State.

However, it is also worth noting in the report that between April 2017 and February 2021, the live register in Limerick decreased by 3,482 or 32.5%, which was better that the State average decline of 29.1%. Regional enterprise development and sustainable local job creation is a key policy priority of this Government, and I note the Senator mentioned in his remarks that ensuring we have sustainable local job creation is what we must do. To this end, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment is overseeing the development of new regional enterprise plans to 2024, including for the midwest. These are bottom-up plans developed by regional stakeholders including the local authorities, the enterprise agencies, the local enterprise offices, regional skills forums and education and training institutes in each region. The Department's regional enterprise development fund has allocated over €117 million across 79 enterprise-strengthening projects in every region since 2017 and the midwest and Limerick have been very successful in attracting these funds, securing just over €15 million for eight significant enterprise focused projects for the region. These funds are supporting significant collaborative and innovative regional projects that will provide a timely impetus to job creation in the midwest.

The Senator mentioned the IDA and regional development is also at the heart of its new strategy, Driving Recovery and Sustainable Growth, which is under the regions pillar. The IDA will take actions in collaboration with existing clients to drive transformation through innovation and upskilling, to develop clusters and to work with clients and stakeholders to facilitate remote working opportunities. There are 143 IDA client companies in the midwest region, employing approximately 24,169 people. The foreign direct investment performance, FDI, in the region has been consistent over the past five years, with employment among IDA clients increasing by 29%. I am confident implementing these strong actions will continue to drive down unemployment in Limerick. The midwest has a significant ecosystem of well-established companies across technology, life sciences, international financial services, services engineering and industrial technologies and it has also won significant investment in the food and film sub-sectors. We have seen, particularly around Covid, the advantages some regions have had in relation to remote working and this is something that is being looked at as well in Limerick. We have seen it in the west, for example, where IDA Ireland has a client, Shopify, which has since 2015 built a team of over 400 people who work remotely in the west of Ireland, and the company continues to grow there. The IDA will ensure both Irish and FDI firms can benefit from the changed landscape by making Ireland a better place to work remotely and by remaining agile in its approach to companies' changing needs in the particular region of Limerick.

The Minister of State has rightly mentioned many success stories around Limerick and we must acknowledge that. The IDA has done a good job around much of Limerick but it has not done anything for the north side of the city. It is a glaring failure in an otherwise good record of success across the midwest. The Minister of State mentioned a number of positive initiatives but I must say, with respect, we have heard this stuff before. More of the same policies are not going to change what is wrong in Limerick city, with respect to the chronic unemployment and disadvantage that have become entrenched in many parts of the city. I ask the Minister of State to go back to the Government with a message that policies must change and that specifically, we must embrace community wealth-building as a policy. That is where we align our anchor institutions - in Limerick that would be the University of Limerick, University Hospital Limerick and Limerick City and County Council - and ensure they do business differently to benefit local businesses, to encourage the development of co-operatives and to encourage a living wage through their procurement policies. This is the way to encourage our city for the better; more of the same simply will not work.

I thank the Senator. I hear what he is saying. I know Limerick well. My grandfather originated from Limerick. It is a fantastic city and a fantastic region.

I heard what the Senator said about the north side of Limerick and I will convey that to the Minister of State, Deputy Troy. I was struck by what he said about particular black spots and unemployment in areas ranging from 58% to 39%. Those are quite stark figures and that is something we need to tackle. The Senator acknowledged IDA Ireland does considerable good work in the area and much good work is being done. The targeted investment the Senator referenced must be particularly ramped up for these regions and for the areas within the regions that are suffering more than anything else. Community outreach is integral to that and collaboration from a grassroots level up is needed to motivate people through the adoption of a multipronged approach to get people back into the work environment. We had 15% unemployment across the country during the recession but we managed to bring that down again. That is something we can do again in the Limerick region.

Pharmacy Services

I bid the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, good morning. The minor ailment scheme is an internationally recognised extended pharmacy service which allows pharmacists to improve public health access, shape further future services and broaden pharmacy roles to deliver patient care and improve health outcomes. At present, private patients who want to access non-prescriptive medicines for ailments such as hay fever, migraines or skin conditions consult local pharmacists on the best options for them and pay for the over-the-counter medications. However, medical card patients with the same ailment can only access the same medication if they visit their general practitioner, GP and get a prescription. If the Minister were to introduce a minor ailment scheme, public patients would no longer have to make GP appointments, which would save time for both GPs and patients.

Pharmacy-based minor ailment schemes have been introduced throughout the UK to reduce the burden of minor ailments on high-cost settings, including general practices and emergency departments. Some 24 million consultations take place in Irish general practice each year and more than 1 million consultations in out-of-hours co-operatives. With Irish GPs receiving €551 million from the HSE in 2017, this implies a cost €22.98 per consultation. Independent analysis commissioned by the Irish Pharmacy Union, IPU, estimated that the full implementation of a comprehensive minor ailment scheme would save almost 1 million GP consultations per year and free up approximately €22 million worth of valuable GP capacity in an overloaded GP service, the equivalent of almost 100 full-time GPs. I have pointed out previously that more than half a million of the population live within 1 km of a pharmacy and 85% live within 5 km of one. Therefore, why the delay in introducing such a scheme?.

In 2006, the IPU made a submission to the Department of Health and Children on a pharmacy-based minor ailment scheme. In January 2009, the IPU proposed the introduction of a pharmacy-based minor ailment scheme at a meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children. In 2015, the IPU centred its prebudget submission on a proposal to introduce a minor ailment scheme. In April 2016, the then Minister for Health, Deputy Varadkar, announced the introduction of a pharmacy based minor ailment pilot scheme at the IPU’s conference. In July 2016, a pilot scheme was commenced and ran at 19 pharmacies in four towns, namely, Kells, Roscommon, Macroom and Edenderry and it ran for three months. In May 2019, the then Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, addressed the IPU members at the IPU conference and declared we know the minor ailment scheme works. He stated I am fed up hearing about evaluating the minor ailment scheme; we know it works. On 2 May 20221, in a video address by the IPU members the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, stated he also wished to emphasise the important role community pharmacists play in the wider health service in the delivery of holistic patient care. He also stated he was committed to further developing that role in the context of health service reform. He further stated he had listened to and met with the IPU both in opposition and since he was appointed Minister for Health and that he firmly believed that there is much merit in the initiatives it was seeking to progress as the minor ailment scheme.

Often in this House we do a lot of talking and very little doing. This scheme works and will support the existing delivery of healthcare to our citizens.

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue and for the opportunity to clarify the position on the introduction of a minor ailment scheme in community pharmacies on behalf of the Minister for Health.

The programme for Government contains a commitment to expanding the role of community pharmacies in managing patient health, and there have been a number of proposals in recent years to expand clinical pharmacy services, which the Senator outlined. These include recommendations to the Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland's 2016 Future Pharmacy Practice report, and proposals from the Irish Pharmacy Union, IPU, and others. In addition, it is intended that a modernised service contract will include improvement and expansion of pharmacy services for public patients. Important new services, including influenza vaccinations and emergency contraception, have been introduced in recent years. I can now go to a community pharmacy for the influenza vaccination, which is a great benefit.

The Minister acknowledges that community pharmacists have played a pivotal role in responding to the health needs of the public during the Covid-19 crisis, most recently in assisting with the vaccination roll-out, which happened last week. I do not yet have data on the success of this roll-out, but it is very welcome.

New public health services in community pharmacy, as elsewhere, should address unmet public health needs, improve access to existing public health services or provide better value for money or patient outcomes to be funded by the taxpayer. Any new or transferred services should also be based on sound evidence with matching improvements in governance and administration. One such proposal for an expanding community pharmacy service is a paid minor ailment scheme whereby pharmacists treat medical card patients directly with over-the-counter items for specified minor conditions, without the patient needing a GP prescription. It has been suggested that such a service will produce better patient outcomes and reduce GP consultations for general medical services scheme patients with minor conditions. Pharmacist already provide the services for private patients and it is within their scope of professional practice.

As the Senator outlined, the HSE undertook a three-month feasibility study in Kells, Roscommon, Macroom and Edenderry. Five conditions - dry skin, dry eyes, vaginal thrush, scabies and threadworm - were selected, with clinical protocols in place for safe and accountable practice. The pilot was intended to demonstrate the feasibility of delivering such a service, and the HSE report found its operation with regard to IT and the claiming infrastructure was effective. The Senator also said that a larger trial, with a defined outcome assessment, will be required to produce meaningful data on clinical outcomes, patient experience, and the effects on GMS-GP activity for minor conditions. If this matter is to be progressed, more extensive trialling will be required to determine the effectiveness or otherwise of a minor ailment scheme in an Irish healthcare context.

The Minister met with representatives of the IPU last December, when the minor ailment scheme and other issues were discussed. He stated that he wants to see the expansion of the role of community pharmacists through a new contract in line with Sláintecare objectives. In this regard, it is intended that any discussions on progressing the issue will take place in the context of broader consultation with pharmacy representatives on a replacement for the current pharmacy contract.

I thank the Minster of State. As we rebuild our health service after Covid-19, we must remember the resources of community pharmacists and the value in which we hold them in the implementation of community healthcare. Changes were made to allow pharmacists to give the emergency contraceptive to women with a medical card.

The IT systems are already in place such that in terms of a mechanism for the minor ailment scheme, very little support would be needed for the sector to implement it. The delivery of community care services must be the only way forward. I urge the Minister to enable this vital piece of community-based coverage. We cannot continue to put this on the long finger. A larger trial is not what this industry needs. The scheme has been already trialled and it was a resounding success in the 19 pharmacies. The data collected from the trial justify this. I urge the Minister for Health, when preparing this year's health budget, to include the costing for this scheme. The last thing we need is another trial. This could result in a vital saving and it will help the already stretched health service in this country.

I again thank the Senator for raising this important matter. The Minister is keen to expand the role of community pharmacists in managing patient health, but he is of the view that for any new public health services in community pharmacy to be funded by the taxpayer, as elsewhere, they must improve health outcomes and provide value for money and benefits for patients. Any new or transferred services should also be based on sound evidence, which I think is the case in regard to this scheme, with matching improvements in governance and administration.

While the introduction of a comprehensive and resourced minor ailment scheme would require further trialling and consultation, it is the Minister's intention to have a broader discussion with the Irish Pharmacy Union on contractual and service arrangements carried out in due course. The Irish Pharmacy Union has a strong voice, one I always welcome. The delivery of the influenza vaccine by pharmacists has been very effective. There may be some issues arising relating to contracts, but these will be dealt with by the Minister, officials from the Department of Health, the HSE and the IPU.

Employment Support Services

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, to the House. In this Commencement matter, I am seeking an extension of the reasonable accommodation fund to the public sector and, in light of our extensive obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, that it be changed to a person-centred fund rather than an employer-centred fund.

Currently, there are schemes in place for private sector employees and employers. The reasonable accommodation fund enables employers of employees with a disability to take appropriate measures to help them to access, improve or retain their employment by way of the following grants: the workplace equipment adaptation grant, the job interview interpreter grant, the personal reader grant and the employee retention grant. However, public sector employers and employees cannot access these grants. Public sector employers include Departments, State agencies, the HSE and local authorities. Public sector employers must facilitate staff who have a disability through the provision of assistive technology adaptive equipment, facilities, aids and appliances and they must also meet that cost. The critical point is that the management of each Department or State agency must decide where to expend money within their respective departments in the context of budgetary constraints.

I want to highlight one of many cases in the public sector where an employee is being treated disgracefully because of budgetary constraints and the autonomy within each sector.

The following are the words of an employee of this State:

I first submitted an application in 2007. Since then, I have been sent to a doctor. I had the NCBI in a meeting with management to show the merits of the device, reports from the NBCI an doctors recommending it. I was told to sell it to them - make a business case, what benefit is it to this organisation as the benefit to you is immaterial. This is now 2021 and we are no further on. They refuse to accept that with this technology I will be able to do my work better, do a more diverse range of work, have more confidence and I would be able to feel and I would be able to progress in this organisation. I am now exhausted and constantly demeaned as I have to go with my begging bowl. I am retracting inwards and I know I am not valued within this organisation because I am visually impaired.

Those are the really upsetting words of a public sector employee. The issue is that it is within the gift of management to provide this employee with assistive technology but only if it is within budgetary constraints. If the fund was extended to the public sector, this sort of begging would not be necessary. A person with a disability, if in employment, should not be dependent on his or her employer to obtain a grant from the State. It should really be individual. We must give the person with a disability autonomy and ownership of the grant. It would mean that the person in receipt of the grant would feel more independent and would have the autonomy to move from one job to another.

A review of the grant scheme would be very beneficial. Under Article 27 of the UN Convention of Persons with Disabilities, every person with a disability has a right to work and should be enabled to participate in the workforce on an equal basis. Under the comprehensive strategy for people with disabilities, the Government has committed to increasing the public service employment target for persons with disabilities from a minimum of 3% to 6% by 2024. Given that approximately 15% of our population is considered to have a disability, a target of 6% is very low. That said, if we open up the reasonable accommodation fund grant to individuals and extend it to the public sector, we will make our society and our public sector fairer for everyone.

I thank Senator McGreehan for raising this issue. My Department has responsibility for providing labour market services for people with a disability, assisting them with finding paid employment and preparing them for employment through training or employment programmes. Under the reasonable accommodation fund, my Department helps employers and employees with a disability to take appropriate measures to help a person with a disability to access, improve or retain his or her employment in the private sector. The fund is comprised of four types of grant, which Senator McGreehan referenced, namely the workplace equipment or adaptation grant, job interview interpreter grant, personal reader grant and employee retention grant.

It is important to note that the funding the Department makes available through the grants it administers does not impact or lessen the obligation on employers to provide reasonable accommodations. The provision of reasonable accommodations by all employers is a legally enforceable right for both jobseekers and employees. The Employment Equality Acts oblige employers to take reasonable steps to accommodate the needs of both employees and job applicants except where to do so would impose a disproportionate burden on them. Under section 47 (1) (a) of the Disability Act 2005, a public body shall, in so far as practicable "take all reasonable measures to promote and support the employment by it of persons with disabilities".

The Senator is calling for the extension of the grant scheme to public sector workers. As a public sector employer, the Department of Social Protection employes a dedicated disability liaison officer, DLO, who provides support to staff and managers through advice, information and reasonable accommodations. In 2020, 5.75% of total staff disclosed a disability as part of a staff census. New staff appointments to the Department are made aware of the DLO, the officer's role and the supports available as part of an induction and information programme for new entrants. This encourages and facilitates the ability of the DLO to ensure that necessary accommodations are notified and provided as early as possible. The Department utilises the Code of Practice for the Employment of People with a Disability in the Irish Civil Service to guide its induction, awareness and provision of workplace supports training and career progression. Staff assistive supports include ergonomic assessments, Irish Sign Language, ISL, interpreters, subtitling for videos circulated internally, adaptation of premises including bathrooms, doors, parking and so on, software for individuals with visual impairments or dyslexia, adjustments to work patterns, job role adjustments and working from home provisions. The Department also provides specialised equipment such as cameras, magnifiers, large monitors, adjustable desks, custom chairs, headsets and telephone equipment.

In 2020, the Department established an internal equality, diversity and inclusion unit which encompasses and further supports the DLO role, allowing for further resources and more reach to staff with disabilities.

In the area of work experience for people with disabilities, the Department is committed to yearly participation in the willing, able, mentoring programme, a work placement initiative organised by the Association for Higher Education Access and Disability, AHEAD. The Department has consistently employed candidates from the programme each year.

The provision of such supports in the public sector is a matter for public sector employers and it is my firm view that the public sector should show leadership in this area by providing the supports necessary directly. Given the limited resources available to the Department of Social Protection to support people with disabilities and other groups that are marginalised, I do not believe the provision of such incentives to other public sector organisations is necessary. Where public sector organisations require resources for this purpose, it is a matter to be raised with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform in the context of the annual budget Estimates.

I certainly will raise my concerns with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. The Minister of State's response outlines the valid reasons why his Department looks after the labour force. However, this highlights the lack of acceptance of disability in the workforce. There is unconscious bias and people with disabilities are constantly fighting for access and to be seen as equal in our society. Yes, the Minister of State correctly stated in his response that the public sector should show leadership, but, unfortunately, when it is down to management and personality deciding whether one person is worthy of something and not worthy of something else, that is not leadership. There should be leadership from the Department. I understand the Minister of State's response and am disappointed with it. However, I will take his advice and take it up with Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform.

Again, I thank the Senator for raising the issue. I will not ask what Department was involved but the situation she described, frankly, was unacceptable. I reiterate what I said earlier. The Employment Equality Acts oblige employers to take reasonable steps to accommodate the needs of both employees and job applicants with disabilities, except where to do so would impose a disproportionate burden on them. Under section 47(l)(a) of the Disability Act 2005, a public body shall, "in so far as practicable take all reasonable measures to promote and support the employment by it of persons with disabilities". It is not clear to me that the public sector employer the Senator referenced in that case has done these things. Perhaps the employer has, but perhaps not. Each Department has legal responsibilities in this regard, and that is the nub of our response to this.

Defence Forces

I thank the Cathaoirleach for giving me the opportunity to raise this very relevant matter. This morning, I am asking the Minister for Defence whether on completion of a military ceremony at the funeral of a member of the Army the Irish flag could be presented to the family of the deceased as a tribute to the service given by the deceased. I believe this would be a suitable acknowledgement of the service given to the State's Defence Forces. Having spoken to many families in Galway and throughout the country who have been in this situation, this is something they would very much appreciate. In Galway city and county I speak to Army families daily and we certainly must consider this. As the Minister of State is aware, this already happens in other countries in Europe and across the world. The flag that would be presented would be cherished, kept safe and respected. It would be passed down through the generations as a reflection of the service given by the deceased member. Our national flag would serve as a symbol to the family and would be very appropriate.

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Brophy, for being in the House and giving of his time to answer the question. All Members of both Houses and people across the country respect the Irish flag to the highest level of nationalism. For a small outlay, the provision of a flag is very worthy and I await his response.

I thank Senator Crowe for raising the matter and I am here to represent the Minister for Defence, Deputy Coveney, who, unfortunately, cannot attend.

I acknowledge the service given by current and former members of the Defence Forces who have devoted their time to serving our country and thank them for it. I hope to provide some clarity on the protocols for military funerals and where it is customary for the national flag to be presented to the next of kin of deceased former members of the Defence Forces' personnel.

I am advised by the military authorities that the national flag, which drapes the coffin of a person who has died in service, is to be presented to the next of kin at the time of place of burial or cremation. However, it is not customary for the national flag to be presented to the next of kin of former members of the Defence Forces' personnel at the time and place of burial or cremation.

Administrative instruction A10 sets out the relevant protocols for military funerals and certain procedures around the presentation of the national flag to the next of kin of deceased former Defence Forces' personnel. That administrative instruction states:

It is not the custom for the national flag to be presented to the next of kin of ex-service personnel. In certain circumstances, where the next of kin of an ex-service personnel requests to be presented with the national flag draping the coffin, the General Officer commanding the Brigade, the Defence Forces Training Centre, the Air Corps, or the Flag Officer commanding the Naval Service may accede to such a request.

As set out in the administrative instruction, the national flag may be presented to the next of kin of ex-service members of the Defence Forces on the basis of various criteria such as their length of service and retirement with a satisfactory record. This administrative instruction also delineates the procedures for military participation at a funeral. The administrative instruction A10 states:

Where the family of a retired member of the Permanent Defence Force has requested a Military Funeral and where the exigencies of the service permit, the General Officer Commanding the Brigade , the Flag Officer Commanding the Naval Service or the General Officer Commanding the Air Corps may authorise military participation at the funeral of a retired member of the Permanent Defence Force who is not entitled to receive a full military funeral under the provisions of paragraph 5 of the Defence Forces Regulation A10. The deceased must have had a minimum of twenty years service and retired with a satisfactory record.

Although the administrative instruction A10 states "where the next of kin of an ex-service personnel requests to be presented with the national flag draping the coffin, the General Officer commanding the Brigade, the Defence Forces Training Centre, the Air Corps, or the Flag Officer commanding the Naval Service may accede to such a request", it is not the standard practice to present the family of the deceased with a national flag at that place of burial or cremation. At present, there are no plans to change the procedures referred to in administrative instruction A10.

In conclusion, I again acknowledge the service given by current and former members of the Defence Forces who have devoted so much time to serving the country. It is something that I know we are all immensely proud of.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. I accept his response and I am aware of what he outlined in terms of the national flag being presented automatically if the deceased is a serving member. I ask for the Department to reconsider this matter and give certainty. I ask that if members have a full service and meet the qualifying criteria, their family is presented with a national flag at the funeral.

There has to be certainty in this. If the deceased had an unblemished record, a full service, and served at the required level, there should be criteria set out so that the flag can be presented to his or her family. If the deceased meets those criteria, that should be sufficient. If he or she does not, the answer will naturally be "No."

In fairness to the length of service of personnel and in having respect for the military and the Defence Forces, there must be clarity and certainty brought to this matter. If criteria are set down in a list and they are met, that is all well and good.

I have listened to the Senator's remarks. There is much to consider in what he has said and I will convey his remarks to the Minister, Deputy Coveney. Many military families will be interested in his remarks. As it stands, that is the procedure in place, but I will convey the Senator's remarks and the contents of our exchange to the Minister.

Sitting suspended at 11.41 a.m. and resumed at 12.03 p.m.