Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Airport Policy

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Mary Butler for coming into the House and wish her a belated happy birthday. I call on Senator Maria Byrne, who has four minutes.

I welcome the Minister of State and join in wishing her a happy birthday. I wish to raise the issue of Shannon Airport, which has been through a very turbulent time in regard to Aer Lingus and a number of routes being closed down. That said, there have been many announcements by Ryanair regarding many holiday destinations. Many businesses in the Shannon area, however, that is, in Limerick and in the mid-west region are dependent on routes out of Shannon Airport. While I welcome that there is now connectivity with Heathrow and the announcement on the American side of things that issues around border control will open up shortly and that routes will be back, perhaps in November, it is really important that the Government takes a thorough look at Shannon Airport. There has been major investment in regard to businesses expanding and businesses locating in the mid-west region and that is down to connectivity with our friends in the US and with Europe. As for Heathrow, we have had Brexit and we also need to look at connectivity in terms of a European hub. This is very important for businesses in the mid-west because prior to the pandemic, many businesses stated when they opened up or announced that they were locating in the mid-west, that it was down to education as well. We have three third level education institutions in the mid-west and they have helped, along with connectivity.

Many aviation companies have opened in Limerick and around the Shannon area. There is everything from aircraft leasing to the education and training board putting on a skills training course for aircraft maintenance. While Shannon Airport is separate, under the remit of Dublin Airport, the Government needs to give a boost to Shannon and the mid-west. I welcome the fact that Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Deputy Naughton, visited Shannon Airport recently and we saw an investment of over €6 million for a new baggage carrier. There will be many benefits arising from that and it will shorten the length of time people must wait. As we have a very long runway in Shannon, there are many things going for Shannon Airport but we need Government support and investment.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for his wishes. The Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, sends her apologies, as she is not able to be here this morning. The Senator hit the nail on the head when she said Shannon Airport has come through "turbulent times". No two words could better sum up what we have come through in the past 18 months. Ireland is particularly dependent on air connectivity, both socially and economically. Aviation plays a crucial role in our economy as a driving force for tourism and business, including foreign direct investment. Civil aviation is emerging from by far the most challenging crisis it has ever faced, with many analysts predicting that it will take several years to return to 2019 levels of activity. Eurocontrol data indicates that overall aircraft movements within its pan-European network are currently holding at around 70% of 2019 levels.

However, recovery in Ireland is slower, with aircraft movements at approximately 50% of 2019 levels. The Government has a comprehensive suite of measures in place to support businesses in addressing the impact of Covid-19, including those in the aviation sector. It is estimated that, through several available supports, Irish airlines and airports have received more than €300 million.

In addition to the Government's economy-wide support measures, in November 2020 an €80 million funding package for Irish aviation was announced. This package included the regional airports programme, which provided more than €21 million to our regional airports for 2021 and which supports the operation of our public service obligation air services. The Covid-19 regional State airports programme for 2021 provided €32 million to Cork Airport and Shannon Airport. Under EU state aid rules, the European Commission approved a €26 million Covid supplementary supports scheme to compensate airport operators for a portion of the damage caused by Covid-19 and the travel restrictions imposed by Ireland to limit its spread.

These supports notwithstanding, our airlines and other aviation stakeholders have had to make several difficult decisions to best ensure their long-term commercial viability. These decisions have focused on areas such as redundancies, laying off staff and the closure of operational bases, all in response to the significant reduction in their operations. Industry has also introduced shorter working schemes, which have reduced both the working hours and pay received by their staff. Most operators have also raised new funding, where possible, either through increased borrowings or the issue of new capital.

Non-essential international travel was permitted to resume from 19 July this year. The progress made with our national vaccination programme, the introduction of the EU digital Covid certificate and the adoption of an emergency brake mechanism to allow for an appropriate response to the potential emergence of any Covid-19 variants that present new or increased risk to public health means that international travel can operate safely. It is hoped that the recent announcements of the resumption of international travel between the US and Europe for vaccinated travellers in November and the discontinuation of our mandatory hotel quarantine system for those arriving from designated states will accelerate the restoration of extra-European air services and the recovery in the transatlantic market, which is of particular importance for Ireland.

I assure the Senator that Shannon Airport is a key element in our regional development plans. Shannon Group has availed of the economy-wide supports provided by Government as well as having received funding under our bespoke aviation support schemes. In total, the Government has allocated almost €33 million in support to Shannon Group since the crisis began and this will assist in positioning it for recovery. Prior to this, Shannon Airport, like all of our State airports, was self-funding.

Of the €26 million provided for under our EU-approved state aid scheme to compensate airport operators for a portion of the Covid-19 related damage to business between April and June 2020, our State airports were provided with €20 million in funding. Funding was allocated on a pro rata basis, with 2019 passenger figures used to determine the appropriate apportionment of funds. Shannon Airport received just under €1 million which will afford it greater flexibility in its ability to offer route incentives, in consultation with airlines.

The economic recovery plan 2021 launched with the goal of achieving rapid job creation and economic growth after the Covid-19 pandemic. This plan set out new measures and provided for the continuation of business supports. Importantly, this plan also recognised the potential need for additional supports for aviation. Officials in the Department of Transport are considering the possible need and options for further targeted supports for aviation with a view to aiding in the restoration of lost air connectivity and competitiveness.

I thank the Minister of State for her response. Yesterday, I welcomed in the House the appointment of Pádraig Ó Céidigh as the new chair of the board. I certainly believe that his experience of aviation and business will be a big asset. Shannon Airport has suffered a lot more than the other airports. With regard to Aer Lingus, it was the staff who suffered. Jobs were cut, including the jobs of many people with mortgages. Shannon Airport needs extra attention because it has been hit worst. The jobs lost there are not going to be replaced whereas the jobs of those working in all of the other airports were suspended on a temporary basis while the airports were closed and have since been reinstated. Shannon Airport needs extra attention if it is to thrive and be the driver in the mid-west region. As the Minister of State said, the airport is key to economic development. I would appreciate it if she could take that message back to the Minister.

The Government is committed to supporting our aviation sector. As the Senator will be well aware, the operation of air services is primarily a commercial decision for the air operators. In this regard, Ryanair's announcement of 18 routes to operate from Shannon this winter season is very welcome - I know the Senator has welcomed this already - as is the return to Shannon Airport of Aer Lingus operations on the London Heathrow route while Cork Airport is closed. The announced return of both American Airlines and United Airlines is a positive development, particularly as transatlantic connectivity is key to many commercial activities in the south-west region while also serving as a boon to our tourism and hospitality sector.

The Government and the Minister will continue to monitor and evaluate the performance of the aviation sector and the need for further targeted support schemes with a view to ensuring continued recovery and restoration.

I also welcome the appointment of the former Senator, Pádraig Ó Céidigh, to his new role. His experience will be very helpful and he will bring a focus to the regional airports.

Home Care Packages

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Health with responsibility for mental health and older people, Deputy Butler, to the Seanad. Families are applying to the HSE's home care hours scheme and receiving approval, which is great, but no help or home care is forthcoming. There are delays and backlogs and the shortage of staff is having an impact. I request an update from the Department of Health on waiting times for people who have been approved for family home care hours by the HSE in the community healthcare west area, which comprises counties Galway, Roscommon and Mayo. Older people and those with disabilities in rural areas are urgently waiting for help.

The home support scheme is for people over the age of 65 and for anybody with a disability or early onset dementia. The Minister of State has done a great deal of work in this area. People usually avail of the scheme after a hip operation or any stay in a hospital. It helps them settle back into their homes. The challenge is that we have very few step-down facilities. In rural regions, particularly in Roscommon and east Galway, the wide geographic areas result in higher mileage costs for healthcare assistants. We see younger members of the family moving away from home, which makes it more difficult. There was also an increase of 20% in the number of people aged over 65 in the most recent census. Our area of Roscommon and east Galway is particularly affected as we have an older age cohort.

Frailty is also a serious issue, as the Minister of State will be aware. After their first fall, many older people suddenly lose the confidence to walk around by themselves with walking or mobility aids. Our older loved ones are unable to handle a bath, a shower, dressing or shaving and need home help.

Under the Programme for Government: Our Shared Future, there are commitments to enable older people to live in their own homes with dignity and independence. Staff within the community healthcare organisation, CHO, 2 area, or the community healthcare west area, are dealing with very significant backlogs and are doing their best to meet demand. I am aware of the challenges in recruiting to the HSE. We need to increase the use of ehealth assistive technologies.

Our social services in Ballinasloe are going to be opening up, but slowly. This has also had a great impact on home care services. The HSE has the option to engage approved third party providers of home care, that is, consumer directed home support, CDHS. How well is this working? Do private providers have the staff to take these referrals from the HSE? We need to look at training. The Minister of State brought up the level of the minimum wage and the comparisons between the HSE and the private sector.

I am aware of the four sites for the new home support pilot the Minister of State has announced and that she is planning to provide for an additional 230,000 hours in CHO 2, that is, Galway, Roscommon and Mayo. This is to look at Tuam, Athenry and Loughrea. In last year's budget, 5 million additional home care hours were provided for 2021. That followed on from the 19 million hours provided for 2020 to alleviate community waiting lists for home care and to support people in avoiding hospital. I have a number of questions for the Department of Health. When will more pilot schemes come on stream, particularly for Ballinasloe and the rest of the CHO 2 area?

Ballinasloe has a catchment of nearly 14,000, taking into account both the rural zone and the urban area. What are the figures? What are the waiting lists? How many third-party providers are being used by the HSE to support the roll-out of the programme? What is the status of the new home support office, which I realise was to be opened only very recently, in August? There are 130 posts under the interRAI system. What are the numbers in this regard? Could I have a timeline for the new statutory home care scheme? I am aware of the Minister of State's commitment to home care support. She was a spokesperson on health previously and would have known this area extremely well.

We need access to resources in rural areas, wide geographical areas. There are challenges in this regard because there is a wider area to cover. For healthcare assistants, we are talking about mileage costs. We are talking about increased costs for private providers. Older people are living alone in isolated areas. When HSE home care hours are approved, they are urgently required. We need to make sure we are supporting people to live with dignity and independence in their own homes.

I thank Senator Dolan for raising this important issue. It is a key priority of the Government and of mine to enable more people to engage with services that allow them to remain independent and live in their own homes with dignity and independence for as long as possible. To advance this, the Government is committed to establishing a new statutory scheme on the financing and regulation of home support.

As the Senator quite rightly said, in July I announced the selection of four sites to test a reformed model of service delivery, through the delivery of 230,000 hours of home support. This pilot will underpin the development of the statutory scheme for home support services and will be fully operational by 1 November. As the Senator quite rightly said, Tuam, Athenry and Loughrea were selected for the pilot in the CHO 2 area.

A national home support office will be established before the end of this year to support the testing of the reformed model of service delivery. In addition, approximately 130 posts have been funded for the national roll-out of the interRAI Ireland system, which the home support pilot will test as the standard assessment tool for care needs. Recruitment of these posts will occur in quarter 4 of this year. In parallel, work is ongoing in the Department to make progress on other aspects of the scheme, including the development of a regulatory framework and the examination of options for the financing model. The ESRI is doing some work on that for us.

While this new home support scheme is under development, the Government is prioritising improving access to home support services for older people. The largest ever investment was made for home support hours for older people in budget 2021. My budget this year for home care supports is €666 million, a phenomenal amount. There has been an allocation of an additional €150 million this year. The national service plan sets a target to provide 24 million hours of home support. This is an ambitious target, the objective being to increase provision by 5 million hours in one year, or to exceed the 2020 target by more than 25%.

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to unprecedented challenges across our health services, the greatest being in older persons services. While there have been challenges in the delivery of home support hours, particularly during the third wave of the pandemic, significant progress has also been made.

Provisional information, which may be subject to change, indicates that at the end of August 2021, over 13.2 million home support hours had been provided to 53,905 people. This is about 2 million more hours than in the same period last year. Approximately 478 people were waiting for funding approval, representing an 88% reduction by comparison with the same period in 2020. As a result, the preliminary figures indicate to me that the extra hours have resulted in 1,200 people not having to enter nursing home care this year. That is a great achievement.

The consumer-directed home support approach facilitates funded clients to deal directly with the HSE approved providers of their choice and to arrange days and times of service delivery. This is available in all CHOs across the country. However, based on a recent evaluation undertaken by the office of the assistant national director responsible for older people, it has been found that the uptake of this approach nationally has been minimal since its launch in 2018.

To answer the Senator's questions, provisional data from the HSE indicate only one person was waiting for funding approval in CHO 2 at the end of August 2021. However, 651 are waiting on carers – 212 in Galway, 325 in Mayo and 114 in Roscommon. The challenges we have are not financial; they concern securing the staff. There are only 1,400 people waiting for funding. By the end of next month, there will be only 500, but the challenge is to recruit the staff. I will touch on that in addressing supplementary questions.

I thank the Minister of State for her response but I am shocked by it. I understand that funding has been provided and that the Government and programme for Government have indicated there is to be support for home care hours but there are still challenges that we have to rectify. No one else is going to rectify the recruitment problems within the HSE, or within the CHOs. We have to do this. We have to consider the number of third-party providers of consumer-directed home support. How many of them are being used to support the CHOs in delivering what is required? The staff within the CHOs are struggling and crying out for help trying to deal with this.

There are 651 people waiting on carers, including 212 in Galway, 325 in Mayo and 114 in Roscommon. These individuals all have families that are struggling and looking for help urgently. Our hospitals are not able to accommodate the individuals. We saw the waiting lists. We noted the issues in University Hospital Galway yesterday. In Portiuncula hospital, and probably in Roscommon town, the relevant figure is over 60. There is nowhere for the patients to go. Some are living longer, which is great. Life expectancy is increasing, which is wonderful, but we are still not able to support people living in their own homes. This is all part of Sláintecare. The affected people have suffered over the past 18 months.

I am aware that the Minister of State is doing her best but we have to do more. I would be interested in comparing my CHO area to others. Is it the same for other CHO areas? For other geographical areas, is it the same? I would be very interested in finding out. I thank the Minister of State very much.

I thank the Senator. To reiterate, there is only one person waiting for funding approval in the CHO 2 area. That is what makes it so frustrating. Previously, the challenges we had were related to the number of people waiting for funding. In March of last year, 7,250 people were waiting for funding in the country. There are now only 1,400. Therefore, we have made huge strides. Efforts are ongoing to meet the demand for home support services. The HSE continues to advertise on an ongoing basis for healthcare assistants and recruit as many suitable candidates as possible. The HSE conducts its recruitment through a variety of channels.

The split between public and private provision is 50:50, but it varies depending on the CHO. On Tuesday of this week, I met representatives of Home and Community Care Ireland, which advocates for all the various groups, including Home Instead Senior Care and Bluebird Care. I am to speak at a conference in this regard at 12.30 p.m. today. Home care groups face huge recruitment challenges, as does the HSE.

We have agreed to set up a task force to examine the challenges. The Senator asked me whether the position is the same everywhere. It is not but rural areas are proving very difficult. There are many challenges in respect of private providers that do not offer mileage supports. That is also an issue.

Covid-19 Pandemic

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit, an Teachta Butler. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Seanadóir Currie as ligean dom labhairt ar dtús. I have a couple of technical questions. I appreciate that the Minister of State might not have all the technical answers but I trust that she will use her good offices to instruct officials to achieve clarity and to communicate. I initially submitted this matter to ask when the portal would be going live. We understand now that it was up yesterday but that it is going live today. Off the back of that, there has been some confusion. I would like to use this opportunity to give the Minister of State a platform to provide some information or get the word out because there are many watching this morning who want just that.

It is really welcome that this is happening in the first place and that citizens in the North, in particular, are able to avail of the EU entitlement, not least in the context of having lost so much as a result of Brexit.

Will the Minister of State clarify that the way to obtain an EU digital certificate is through the online portal? Yesterday, it was the understanding of some people that if they did it through the Covid tracker app they would be able to get the EU digital certificate. It seems now that what they actually received is an EU-compliant proof of their vaccination in the North. Can one do it via the old app or is there a new app coming online or is the portal? What is the best way?

Second, in order to obtain the app through the portal one must have the North's digital certificate. That is only valid for three months and one must reapply each time. Do people have to reapply every three months for the EU digital certificate? Travel dates are required to obtain the digital certificate in the North. That is a problem for people who perhaps are not travelling but who want to travel from the North into the South and use their digital certificate to access entertainment, leisure or hospitality facilities.

Finally, the Minister of State will know that many people from the South, not least healthcare workers, were encouraged to get vaccinated in the North. In order for them to apply for the EU digital certificate they need a certificate from the North, but to get the North's certificate they must be resident in the North and, obviously, they are not. I said this would be technical and I hope I have not overwhelmed the Minister of State or other colleagues. I look forward to hearing from the Minister of State.

As the Senator said, this online portal is good news for Irish passport holders who were vaccinated in the North whereby they can apply for an EU digital Covid certificate. I, too, have technical questions.

What is the proof of vaccination that is required from the North? The Northern Ireland Covid vaccination certificate is issued by the Northern Ireland Department of Health so one must go through that portal process initially to get official proof of vaccination from the North. That comes from the nidirect.gov.uk website. One acquires that first and it is that quick response, QR, code, one's second QR code, that one uses to apply through the portal, covidcertificateportal.gov.ie, for the EU digital certificate. I believe one must go through two portals and I am seeking confirmation of that. Is there a way to make it any easier? As my colleague said, the Northern Ireland Covid certificate is only for three months.

Some people think that if one just takes a picture of one's QR code and uploads it onto the Covid app, that is that. However, it is not as simple as that. We have to be very clear about that because it is all over social media. This has a big impact for cross-Border workers. There is a great deal of confusion so we must have very clear information. I believe it is where one received one's second vaccine that determines where one applies to gets one's proof of vaccination.

I have another question. Although this is a facilitator, one still has to check the requirements for the country to which one is travelling and then the requirements for when one is returning. I believe the reopen.europa.eu website is the best place to check that information. Perhaps the Minister of State will confirm that because I have encountered some confusion about whether somebody can travel from Belfast or Derry airports or whether it must be Dublin.

There are many technical questions. We had them when the EU digital certificate launched and we have them now. The more information the Minister of State can give to us to get the word out, the better.

I thank the Senators for their questions and I will do my best to answer them with the details that have been provided to me. I thank them for the opportunity to speak on the online portal. The EU digital Covid certificate introduced in July provides the framework for the issuance, verification and acceptance of inter-operable Covid certificates. The EU digital Covid certificate is a proof that a person has either been vaccinated against Covid-19, received a negative Covid-19 test result or recovered from Covid-19. They are the three criteria. The purpose of the digital Covid certificate is to facilitate free movement.

Due to significant and productive cross-government collaboration we were successfully able to overcome the initial impediments and complications that come with any large-scale project. With more than 4 million certificates issued, this project has helped support the safe reopening of our society. It has also been used in Ireland and in other EU member states, domestically, for facilitating safe access to indoor hospitality, supporting the reopening of our economy. Only a small number of EU countries, including France, are choosing to issue EU digital Covid certificates to their citizens who were vaccinated abroad. However, yesterday it was announced that we would take first steps towards implementing this option and expanding the service to allow Irish passport holders who have been vaccinated in a third country to access an EU digital Covid certificate. This service is now available to Irish citizens who have been vaccinated in Northern Ireland and it will extend to Irish citizens vaccinated in further areas outside of the EU in October.

The dedicated online portal currently accepts applications from Irish citizens vaccinated in Northern Ireland who hold a Northern Irish Covid vaccination certificate with a QR code. Irish citizens resident in Ireland who have been vaccinated in Northern Ireland may also apply. Through the online portal, individuals will be asked to upload a copy of their Irish passport, upload their reliable proof of vaccination in the form of their Northern Ireland vaccination certificate and give their consent to process the data for this specific purpose. If the person provides satisfactory proof of identity and vaccination, the EU digital Covid certificate will be sent to the person by email. The online portal will be expanded to accept applications from Irish citizens vaccinated in other non-EU countries from 21 October. Initially, therefore, it is for Northern Ireland and people living in the South who were vaccinated in Northern Ireland.

The EU digital Covid certificate initiative is quickly emerging as the robust international standard for Covid certification, as evidenced by the joining of an additional 16 countries which are recognised as equivalents under the initiative. The Government is pleased to be able to put Ireland in the lead in ensuring these certificates are more widely available to our citizens. Everybody will accept and acknowledge that there were impediments initially for the original digital Covid certificate, but they were ironed out very quickly. My 15-year-old received the second vaccine and by that evening the certificate had arrived, although it is not viable for 14 days until the timeline had passed. It is happening very quickly for somebody who receives the second Covid vaccine.

I hope I managed to answer most of the Senators' questions. If not, I will certainly get them a more comprehensive response.

Due to the Minister of State's efficiency in replying I will not have to divide the time into 30 seconds each. I will give 50 seconds each, but please try to stay within that time.

The 50:50 approach is always good. I thank the Minister of State for her reply. I appreciate that there were many technical questions and we might need that additional information if she could furnish us with it.

I have two brief points, and Senator Currie referred to them. People had intended this from a genuine and sincere motivation. We are sure they were trying to assist online yesterday. However, what is clear to me, and we must get clarity on this if the Minister of State cannot give it, is that if people applied through the Covid tracker app yesterday they received an EU compliant certificate but they do not have the EU digital certificate. Some people are under the misapprehension that they have it, sin é, and they may not. I want to try to get that message out through this opportunity today.

There was talk about a dedicated helpline. It might be worth ensuring that it is up and running. With the greatest will in the world Senator Currie, myself and others will do our best to furnish people with information, but we are not the Department of Health so it would be good if that could get up and running as soon as possible for those who have questions. The Minister of State might also consider encouraging the Department to undertake a publicity drive in the North through some of the local newspapers whereby it could advertise the details of this so people will know and have a direct and local interface with this portal and will be able to get that information as close to home as possible.

We have to promote this with all the technical information to answer the questions people have. The important thing is that unless one gets an email from the Department to confirm that one has this, one does not have it. If it is arriving by email, we have to tell people that. It is not enough for them to go through their tracker apps.

People have to go through the process of two portals and then it will arrive in their inboxes.

We have to accept that we do not have control over the efficiency of the first process and that there is a backlog. We will have to put that up the food chain and ask if the two Ministers can talk about this to make sure it is working as efficiently as possible. This is sensitive to us. It is about EU citizens being entitled to EU benefits and that is an important message.

To reiterate, through the online portal, individuals will be asked to upload a copy of their Irish passport, upload their reliable proof of vaccination in the form of their Northern Ireland vaccination certificate, and give their consent to process the data for this specific purpose. I am open to correction on this but I would imagine that given the way it has happened here, one's certificate would either be sent by post or email and in the main they were emailed. As I said, each applicant must show proof of a valid Irish passport and of their vaccination certificate with a quick response, QR, code issued by the Department of Health in Northern Ireland. The service is also available to Irish passport holders who are cross-border workers and who have received their vaccination in Northern Ireland. Every effort is being made to ensure that these certificates will be issued in a timely manner.

While the expansion begins with Irish passport holders vaccinated in Northern Ireland, it does not end there. Teams are currently assessing vaccine certificates issues from third countries to support the application process. Specific requirements for vaccination proof will be published prior to the launch of the second phase on 21 October. At this point, applications will be accepted from the Irish diaspora far and wide. The new portal will enable Irish citizens abroad to apply for an EU digital Covid certificate so I hope that answers the Senator's question. It is a new portal and not the app that is already there and citizens can use this to ease their travel across the EU.

The Senator raised the issues of collaboration between the two Ministers and the possibility of advertisements. I will bring all those issues back and hopefully Senators have received some new information today. It takes time for anything new to bed down but it is a welcome move that this is happening.

I forgot to wish the Minister of State a happy birthday, which I probably should have done.

I did not know that. The fourth commencement matter was in my name and was on the need for the Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works to make a statement on the implications of the recent High Court order to temporarily halt the flood release works at Lough Funshinagh, County Roscommon. I have had to withdraw that Commencement matter and I will explain at a later date why it was withdrawn. I apologise to the Cathaoirleach and staff, who were good enough to accept it as a Commencement matter. Regrettably, I had to withdraw it. I thank Members and the staff for their co-operation.

Sitting suspended at 11.13 a.m and resumed at 11.30 a.m.