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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 23 Mar 2022

Vol. 283 No. 11

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Pharmacy Services

Thank you, a Leas-Chathaoirligh, for choosing this Commencement matter and I thank the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Rabbitte, for coming to the Chamber to discuss it.

Earlier this week, I met some pharmacy owners in my constituency in Kildare and I was quite shocked by what they told me about the major issues they are facing in terms of having pharmacists in their premises. Every pharmacy is legally required to have a qualified pharmacist on the premises for filling prescriptions and so forth. The main issue the pharmacy owners raised with me is the crazy bidding war that now takes place when they seek locum cover. Many pharmacy owners are forced to use a website called Clarity Locums to book a locum pharmacist. Last minute bookings through this site can see hourly rates rise to €150 per hour. One person I spoke to was paying €149 per hour.

It is so lucrative that many pharmacists are walking away from full-time jobs and working as locums. They see far greater financial outcomes from that.

This is absolutely unsustainable and these practices further inflate the crisis facing the sector. We need to see the Department intervening here. There are four different areas where I will suggest action but the Department must take concrete and targeted steps to support the industry. I know now of pharmacies that have been forced to reduce their opening hours because of a lack of available pharmacists or the sky-high hourly rates that must be paid. Pharmacies are an essential public service and so many people right around the country in our local communities rely on them. We must support that service.

We must see action by the Department to aid recruitment into the sector. It is my understanding that many non-EU pharmacists cannot work in Ireland because their pharmacy degrees are not recognised here. They need to study for a further year to 18 months in order to register as a pharmacist. I know the Minister of State is doing much excellent work in supporting Ukrainian refugees coming here and many of these are very highly qualified people in the area of health, pharmacy, medicine, etc. I honestly believe there should be a derogation for those who are qualified and come here.

It is possible to declare retail pharmacy as a critical skill shortage. I read a report that the UK Home Office did in March this year on speeding up the process of registering EU and non-EU pharmacists. It is something we must definitely do because the process here is very cumbersome. Retail pharmacies could also be allowed to sell non-prescription medication without the presence of a pharmacist. Otherwise we will see pharmacies closing early or not being open for bank holiday weekends or even ordinary weekends, as they are now.

In the longer term, we must have an increase in the number of Irish university places for the pharmacy sector. Currently, there are only 240 per year and we have been outsourcing pharmacy education to the UK and other areas. They are now having problems with recruitment as well. We must also have a new pathway for experienced pharmacy technicians to become fully qualified. That should be considered. There are a number of areas here and the issue crosses higher education and retail. That is the crux of the matter. I look forward to hearing the Minister of State's response.

I thank Senator O’Loughlin for raising this matter, which I am taking on behalf of the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly.

The Minister is fully committed to any and all actions, underpinned by meaningful engagement, that might mitigate any challenges arising in the context of health workforce availability. The Senator has outlined the various challenges affecting pharmacies in particular, which are an essential service. Pharmacists are required on-site at all times to provide the service. I am taken aback to hear of a bidding war for locums and the rates being paid. It would be far more lucrative to be on the WhatsApp group panel than having a full-time job from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The invaluable contribution of the pharmacy sector and professional pharmacists over the last two years in an extremely challenging environment reinforced the importance of pharmacists in the healthcare system as a whole and the contribution made to patient and public health on a daily basis. The regulation of pharmacists in Ireland is provided for under the Pharmacy Act 2007, and the Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland, PSI, is charged with carrying out this role. The oversight and governance of the regulator is a matter for the Department of Health and my officials have engaged on the matter raised.

It is the Minister's understanding that the regulator is cognisant of reports of challenges that may be emerging in the availability of a pharmacist workforce. The PSI's corporate strategy for 2021 to 2023 contains an action for the PSI to "take steps to identify and mitigate risks to the continued availability of the professional pharmacist workforce, particularly within the community pharmacy sector". This has materialised as the PSI's Emerging Risks to the Future Pharmacy Workforce project, which is a multi-annual project due to run across 2022 and 2023.

In the PSI’s 2022 service plan, the project is set to "assess emerging risks to the continued availability of a professional pharmacy workforce within community and hospital pharmacy in Ireland", with this work currently at the scoping and planning stage. The Senator identified the issue and we cannot stand back. This process must be expedited. The PSI is to convene an expert stakeholder advisory group to advise and inform at key phases throughout the course of the project as to the key risks which are affecting and could affect the continued availability of a professional pharmacy workforce. It will also make an input into proposed strategies to address these. It is expected that proposals for the necessary next steps will be brought to the PSI council by the end of 2022.

That would be a welcome opportunity for the PSI to identify the gaps outlined by the Senator, including shortfalls in university places and opportunities for a technician to upskill. Perhaps that is something we can consider within higher education or the apprenticeship model. Ultimately, a pharmacist is legally required to be on-site and the doors cannot open otherwise. We do not want pharmacies closing in rural towns and villages because they cannot get a workforce. We certainly do not want people leaving hospital settings to be on a particular panel where they can choose their own hours and where to work.

The Senator has provided a shortcut for the PSI. The stakeholder group could start working as soon as possible. Perhaps it could lead to us having a proper plan even for next year's school setting.

I thank the Minister of State. I have no doubt she understands the position. She understands how critical the issue is. It is good to hear about the project that is in place and the scoping exercise but, honestly, it is far too late for that. This is a crisis and if the Government does not act, we will see community pharmacies cutting hours and not being open at crucial times. In rural areas, as mentioned by the Minister of State, the footfall is not as high as in urban areas so it can be very difficult for a business to be sustainable, which it needs to be.

This must be absolutely addressed urgently. We have thousands of highly qualified and skilled refugees arriving to our shores from Ukraine. We must look at the existing legislation to see how we can circumvent red tape and have these people working in our pharmacies. This is not just about the pharmacy sector but GP practices, primary care services and right across our health service. It is very important and we would see mutual benefits as well. The regulator must step in to address the website issue I described. The registration of pharmacists is very important and the project described by the Minister of State must be expedited.

I completely agree with the Senator that the crisis is now. We must address it now. There is a role for the PSI in stepping forward and we should not let the target of the end of 2022 for that process to be completed be the goal. The goal can be now and the organisation can address the matters identified by the Senator. There is also the opportunity to engage with a workforce coming this way and we should have the criteria to assess qualifications so we can have the opportunity to engage persons who want to work with us. We must consider that now and not in six months. If we do not address the problem now, there will be pharmacies closing in rural Ireland when we need that vital and essential service.

Foreign Conflicts

I welcome the Minister of State. His colleague, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, has quite correctly described Yemen as the world's worst humanitarian crisis. It is one I have regularly raised in the House. Since 2015 a brutal war has been prosecuted on the Yemeni people by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The death toll around the crisis is truly shocking. A total of 377,000 Yemenis have died due to direct and indirect causes of war. A minimum of 10,000 children have died since 2015. A total of 4 million Yemenis have been displaced by the war, 79% of whom are women and children. A total of 21 million Yemenis are in dire need of humanitarian assistance, including 5 million on the brink of famine.

Saudi Arabia has also enforced a criminal blockade, thus preventing vital aid reaching more than 80% of the Yemeni population that depend on it. Every ten minutes a Yemeni child dies due to the cruel blockade. A total of 400,000 Yemeni children are at risk of dying according to the director of the UN World Food Programme. The Minister of State knows the Saudi regime decapitates gay people and dissidents, brutalises women and provides, in the words of Hilary Clinton, clandestine financial and logistical support to terrorists. This is the regime that chopped a journalist into pieces in a foreign embassy and incinerated Yemeni children travelling on a school bus on their way back from a picnic.

I have parsed previous statements by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and they have been carefully worded. There has never been a call for sanctions despite the horrendous actions of the Saudi and UAE governments. What really worries me is that to date I cannot see one statement from the Government explicitly condemning the Saudi dictatorship for its war of terror on Yemen. I am hopeful the Minister of State will change this today with a very clear condemnation.

Then there is the issue of arms sales to Saudi Arabia by the US, Britain and EU countries. In a debate in the Seanad a few years back, the Government went as far as acknowledging that arms sales are prolonging the war in Yemen. Recently, the Minister for Foreign Affairs came out with a much weaker statement. When asked about EU allies selling weapons to the murderous Saudi regime, the Minister said arms exports are a national competence of the EU and it is for each state to make this assessment as a national competence. It is an absolutely disgraceful abdication of a responsibility to condemn the arms sales to this heinous dictatorship. BAE Systems has sold £17.3 billion worth of military equipment since 2015. Does the Minister of State really have nothing to say about this? What will he say about it this morning?

It is not enough for the Government to say how awful the conflict is. We need to take responsibility. We have a seat on the UN Security Council. Unfortunately the Government's stance is even worse than I have described. Two weeks ago, the Government sent a Minister of State to Saudi Arabia to tout for more business. At that time the regime was just preparing to engage in a series of executions. There were 81 executions in one day. We sent a Minister of State to tout for more business even as Saudi Arabia was continuing to bomb the people of Yemen, as it continues to do today.

There is the disgraceful ongoing gift of Shannon Airport by the Government to assist in the ongoing prosecution of this war. At a meeting in the audiovisual room two weeks ago, we were told that every US military adviser helping to train Saudi pilots to drop those bombs on the Yemeni population has come through Shannon.

Will the Minister of State make a clear condemnation of Saudi Arabia for its war on the Yemeni population? Will he make a clear call to the Saudi dictatorship to lift the blockade? Will he condemn arms sales by members of the EU, Britain and the US to Saudi Arabia and the UAE? Will he call for an arms embargo on these countries? Will he use our seat the UN Security Council to take a clear stance for peace?

The situation in Yemen is one of the world's worst humanitarian crises, driven by seven years of conflict, economic collapse and the breakdown of public institutions and services which has left millions of people in need of humanitarian assistance. Ireland fully supports the efforts of the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Hans Grundberg, to bring about a political resolution to the conflict in Yemen. Ireland also welcomes the Gulf Cooperation Council initiative to host talks on Yemen and strongly encourages all parties to engage meaningfully with these efforts.

As a member of the Security Council, Ireland has engaged extensively in support of the UN's efforts. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, has held discussions with the UN Special Envoy for Yemen as well as with Major General Michael Beary, head of the United Nations mission to support the Hudaydah agreement. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, has also engaged extensively with the countries of the region, including in direct talks with the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iran and the UAE. In all of these discussions, the Minister has stressed the need to de-escalate hostilities and work with urgency towards a peaceful resolution of the conflict. He has also highlighted the need to ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid to all people in need.

Developments on the ground in recent months have been deeply concerning. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has highlighted the record number of civilian casualties recorded in Yemen in recent months. Ireland has consistently called on the parties concerned to take all possible measures to prevent any loss of civilian life and to uphold international humanitarian law in all circumstances.

Ireland deeply regrets the continued failure of the Houthis to engage seriously in the UN-led peace process. Ireland has condemned in the strongest terms attacks targeting civilian infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and UAE, including the attack on Abu Dhabi airport in January of this year, which killed three people, and the series of attacks against Saudi Arabia on 20 March.

In addition to significant diplomatic efforts, Ireland has been a consistent and reliable donor to Yemen and has contributed more than €37 million in humanitarian funding since 2015, including a commitment of €5 million for 2022, which Minister Coveney pledged on behalf of Ireland at the pledging conference for Yemen on 16 March. Ireland also contributes as an EU member state to approaches to the crisis in Yemen. Since 2015, the EU has contributed more than €1.2 billion, including €827 million in humanitarian aid and €407 million in development assistance.

Ireland will continue to support all efforts to end the terrible conflict in Yemen, including through direct engagement with Saudi Arabia and other regional actors and in the context of our position on the UN Security Council and as a European Union member state.

That is quite an extraordinary statement. There are approximately 400 words and not one word of condemnation of the Saudi dictatorship. It has killed 400,000 people and there is not one word of condemnation. I asked the Minister of State for an explanation as to how we sent a Minister of State there touting for business just as it was ready to execute another 81 people. The Minister of State made no comment.

This is the worst disaster in the world right now and the Minister of State does not have one word to say about the Saudi dictatorship. How extraordinary when we see what is possible, thankfully, in terms of tackling Putin and tackling horrendous actions in the world. However, with regard to the worst disaster and humanitarian conflict there is not one word of condemnation of Saudi Arabia. I ask the Minister of State to please take some courage. He has a choice here. Stand up and condemn the Saudi dictatorship. Tell us that Ireland will take a lead in ending the conflict, particularly insisting on an arms embargo. Surely the Minister of State can do this.

The conflict in Yemen, which is a civil war, has continued for too long, with devastating consequences for the people of Yemen. Ireland supports the call for an immediate ceasefire across Yemen and the negotiation of a sustainable peace agreement under the auspices of the UN. All parties must work towards an immediate de-escalataion. Ireland has consistently called on the parties concerned to take all possible measures to prevent any loss of civilian life and to respect international humanitarian law. There have been numerous reports of acts in the course of the conflict that are contrary to international law, including damage and destruction to civilian infrastructure; gender-based violence, including sexual violence; torture; mistreatment of prisoners; violations against children, including the recruitment of child soldiers; and violations against journalists, human rights defenders, minorities, migrants and internally displaced persons. Ireland supports accountability for all these violations of international humanitarian law and for all human rights abuses.

We must also continue to support the people of Yemen, millions of whom require humanitarian assistance. Ireland has been a reliable and consistent donor to Yemen since the current crisis began in 2015 and one of the largest donors per capita. On 16 March, as I mentioned, the Minister, Deputy Coveney, pledged €5 million on behalf of Ireland, matching our 2021 and 2020 contributions.

Aviation Industry

The Minister of State is very welcome. I appreciate his being here. I know this is not his area of specialty as a Minister of State.

The aviation industry and the hospitality sector have been decimated in the past two years. I welcome the opportunity with this Commencement matter to raise the need for an aviation and hospitality tourism recovery task force strategy. My Commencement matter is timely as the Irish Tourism Industry Confederation published data just this morning which show comparisons with 2019, three years ago. Hotel occupancy in February of this year was 57% that of 2019. The number of inbound tourists from North America was down 48%, or 44,000, from 2019. Most worrying is that the number of tourists from Great Britain was down 40%, or 152,000, on the figure for 2019, with the number from the rest of the world down 52% and the number from continental Europe down 35%.

I think everybody in the aviation, hospitality and tourism sectors recognises and would commend the Government on the supports given. The summer of 2022 is now already set in respect of our aviation sector. We have a lot of air capacity, with seats and routes to and from Ireland reintroduced. The potential for tourism numbers to grow this summer is quite good. I am told the increase will be 70% or thereabouts on the 2019 level.

However, there are challenges. As the Minister of State will know, we are an island nation depending primarily on our aviation sector for connectivity. Inbound passenger numbers to our main airports are significantly down, by almost a third. As I said, we are on the cusp of summer 2022, whereby everything is set in respect of seats and sails.

My ask, including of the Government, is for a long-term vision and strategy for 2023 and beyond, whereby we continue to support the aviation sector and our tourism and hospitality industry. It is important that airports and airlines work together collaboratively to regrow and re-establish our connectivity. The fundamental question that I ask the Government is how we will grow our connectivity. A recovery strategy for aviation, tourism and hospitality is needed. It is critical that we work with all stakeholders to have a roadmap for the future in terms of rebuilding connectivity and looking at the challenges we face as we emerge from Covid. Unfortunately, we have the horrific war in Ukraine, which we all condemn, and we stand with the Ukrainian people. That is having an impact on us in terms of inflation, labour shortages and fuel prices.

The airline industry and market have changed substantially. I hope we will look at the aviation sector. Stobart Air has gone. Aer Lingus is operating fewer routes on short-haul flights, which has a profound impact on airports such as Cork, for example. The strong supports given by the Government must be sustained to support our aviation and tourism travel industry. Some 23 cent in every euro of tourism spend is kept in the country. A defined aviation and tourism recovery strategy for 2023 and beyond is needed as we emerge from the biggest crisis we have had, namely Covid, and, unfortunately, now a war, which, again, we all condemn.

I look forward to the Minister of State's reply. I appreciate that this is not his area and I thank him for being here this morning. I thank you, Acting Chairperson, for allowing me to speak.

I thank Senator Buttimer for his Commencement matter. On behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, I welcome the opportunity to discuss this topic with Members of the House.

It is well acknowledged that Covid-19 has had a devastating impact on the aviation industry, not just in Ireland but globally. In 2020, the number of passengers handled in our main airports fell by a staggering 78% on 2019 levels. In 2021, passenger figures across the State were down 76% on 2019. In the interest of public health, certain travel restrictions and public health measures were introduced by the Government. Arrivals into Ireland were subject to a range of health-related requirements which had the effect of restricting passenger traffic. Possibly the most extreme requirement was mandatory hotel quarantine, which for certain travellers was introduced in March of 2021 and ran until September 2021. Legislation permitting its reintroduction was introduced in December 2021, as were additional entry requirements due to the emergence of the Omicron variant. The Government was always clear that such measures would remain in place only as long as absolutely necessary. As of 6 March this year, there are no Covid-related requirements for entering the State.

During the pandemic, two aviation recovery plans were drafted, one by the aviation recovery task force appointed by the Minister and another by the National Civil Aviation Development Forum, a standing body that brings together key aviation stakeholders in the State. While the constantly evolving epidemiological situation made implementing some recommendations challenging, most of the recommendations of the aviation recovery task force were implemented in some way.

The forum plan, published in April 2021, contained recommendations that the forum believed best provided for the restart and recovery of the aviation sector in Ireland. The recommendations spanned policy areas across government and required engagement across several Departments, which was undertaken by the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton. The Minister of State also engaged with forum stakeholders on the steps necessary to ensure operational readiness when international travel resumed at scale. This plan helped pave the way for the Government's decision to reopen non-essential international travel on 19 July last year.

Throughout the pandemic, the aviation sector availed of the considerable suite of economy-wide support measures, particularly the wage subsidy scheme. It is estimated that these horizontal supports totalled more than €360 million by the end of 2021. Additionally, over €160 million in aviation-specific supports was allocated to Irish airports during 2021, including €116 million under a Covid supplementary support scheme. This European Commission-approved state aid put our State airports in funds to allow them greater flexibility to roll out route and other incentives. Without this support, these airports would not have been in a position to incentivise the recovery to the same extent. It is expected that this funding will support the restoration of international connectivity, evidence of which we are beginning to witness.

Summer 2022, as the Senator remarked, is expected to mark the turning point for aviation. A considerable number of new routes have been announced from Dublin and transatlantic services from Shannon recommenced earlier this month. Cork Airport will have eight airlines serving 37 routes, and Shannon Airport will have three airlines serving 25 routes.

There are currently no plans within the Department of Transport to establish a further recovery plan for aviation, having regard to the broadly positive outlook for the short term. However, work on a new national aviation policy with a medium-term perspective is intended to recommence this year, which will take account of the changed environment.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. The critical point is, first, that there are no plans and, second, that we have a new national aviation policy being rewritten. The pivotal point from which we should start is that our airline and aviation sector has changed considerably, as I said. We have seen profound change. Tourism is our largest indigenous employer, responsible for over 265,000 jobs. As I said, 23 cent in every euro of spend directly related to tourism returns to the Exchequer. The Government has given strong support to the aviation sector to sustain tourism and aviation during the pandemic.

However, we are now in a critical period for Irish aviation and tourism. As an island nation, there is a need for a defined aviation and tourism recovery strategy for 2023 and beyond. As we emerge from Covid, we must face up to the challenges of Ukraine, labour shortages, fuel prices and inflation, along with other challenges. That is why it is critical that we have a dedicated aviation strategy for the future. I look forward to engaging with the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, and the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan. I appreciate the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, being here today.

The latest EUROCONTROL figures show that aviation traffic across the pan-European network is averaging at just over 70% of the equivalent period in 2019. Ireland's traffic levels are reported as slightly higher than this average. Air traffic remains lower than EUROCONTROL's previously estimated recovery forecast, largely due to the emergence of the Omicron variant last year. This would serve to highlight the fragility of the recovery. We remain mindful of the possibility that a variant of concern might again frustrate the restoration of aviation.

Also of concern is the impact of rising fuel costs on air travel. The ongoing crisis in Ukraine clearly has impacts on parts of the aviation industry but, for geographical reasons, the impact on Ireland for now has been limited. The outlook is uncertain with regard to that conflict and there are potential risks for the recovery of aviation in that regard.

With talk of recovery of aviation traffic, the environmental impact of aviation must also be acknowledged. There are several aviation proposals in the Fit for 55 package that aim to ensure aviation becomes more sustainable as it recovers. While there is undoubtedly a need to decarbonise the sector, officials from the Department of Transport continue to engage with the European Commission on the best way forward.

The removal of all remaining travel restrictions has provided much-needed assurance to the industry to enable it to plan with more certainty and provide consumers with more confidence to make future travel plans. The Government has facilitated the jump-starting of the restoration of commercial air services and airports are providing incentives where applicable. Airports and airlines now need time to maximise their recovery.

Water Quality

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the Chamber to deal with this issue. It has been ongoing for some time and I have raised it in the House on a number of occasions. A group in my area called SOS Dublin Bay, made up primarily of sea swimmers, is concerned about the quality of water in Dublin Bay and has raised this issue with me on a number of occasions. The group has written to the offices of the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, and has had meetings. We are coming up on the anniversary of a meeting on 23 June last year on this issue.

The group's concern relates to this country's compliance with the EU bathing water directive and its Irish counterpart transposed into Irish legislation, the 2008 bathing water quality regulations. It is concerned that we are not doing enough to comply with the directive or, on a very simple level, to provide peace of mind to people who are swimming in the waters around Ireland and in the rivers and lakes within Ireland. SOS Dublin Bay and I are specifically concerned with the quality of bathing water in Dublin Bay.

The European directive dates back to the 1970s. The original one was in 1976 and it was updated in 2006. It has made considerable progress throughout the European Union in terms of achieving much higher bathing water quality in rivers, lakes and coastal areas. That is to be commended. We have also made progress in that regard in Ireland but not enough. The reality is that sea, river and lake swimming has become a much bigger exercise now than it was even a few years ago. During the pandemic and the restrictions, many people availed of an amenity on their doorstep and used it in a very healthy way by swimming in the sea, lakes or rivers. That is also to be commended. It is a very good thing that people swim in the sea. It does one good, as well as everything else. However, people should be entitled to enjoy it with peace of mind.

The directive that exists since 2006 requires samplings to be conducted at least four times per season and no more than one month apart. It puts the sample results, in the context of particular bacteria, into four categories; poor, sufficient, good and excellent. I am happy to say that recent tests in Dublin Bay have all been excellent and that is to be welcomed.

The difficulty is in a number of areas. The sample results are not always excellent. It takes time for the result of the sampling to get into the public domain. People may find themselves swimming in water that is poor or insufficient for a long time - days - before they realise it is of poor quality. Difficulty also arises in respect of the regulations passed here in Ireland. Regulation 2 defines the bathing season in any year as the period of 1 June to 15 September in that year. That definition is incredibly restrictive and means we are only required to carry out monitoring under the directive during that short period. That should be changed, especially in light of the fact that people are now using seawater, river water and lake water all year round to swim. People are swimming not just between 1 June and 15 September but today, yesterday, tomorrow, Christmas Day and all through the winter.

People are swimming at the Forty Foot, Seapoint, Hawk Cliff, Blackrock, Sandycove and all the other coastal, river and lake points throughout the country. That is happening but we have prohibited local authorities from expanding the definition of the bathing season to include the whole year. Their obligations are restricted to that much shorter period. We are not in compliance with the directive in that regard and are at risk of facing a complaint to the European Commission regarding our failure to comply with the rules under the directive.

I know this issue has been raised with the Minister and there is a commitment to change it but it has not happened. We are coming up on a year since a meeting that took place between SOS Dublin Bay and the Minister and nothing has happened during that time. It is not a difficult drafting change to make. It would be easy for the Minister to do with the stroke of a pen. When will it happen? Can the Minister of State satisfy me that we are in full compliance with the bathing water directive?

I thank the Senator for raising this issue, which I will answer on behalf of the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage. I was pleased to see continued improvements in the quality of our bathing waters, especially those that meet or exceed the minimum water quality requirements, in the Bathing Water Quality in Ireland 2020 report published by the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA. The EPA reports that 96% of bathing waters met or exceeded the minimum required standard, up from 95% in 2019. I look forward to seeing further improvement in the EPA's 2021 bathing quality report, which is due to be published in May of this year. These continued improvements in bathing water quality are welcome and necessary.

Extensive work is being carried out by each of our local authorities and other stakeholders on continued improvements in our bathing water quality. To protect bathers' health and ensure the public have access to bathing water amenities, it is important that the network of bathing waters is strengthened and enhanced and we continue to see new beaches identified each year.

The European Commission reviews the implementation of the bathing water directive by member states, with the last review undertaken in 2018. This review found that Ireland is fundamentally in line with the provisions of the directive. The Commission recommended that Ireland improve the provision of information on algae and short-term pollution. This has since been put in place. The report concluded that Ireland offers several good practices to demonstrate how the directive can be effectively implemented in practice.

The bathing season under the bathing water regulations is from 1 June to 15 September each year. Recently, some swimming groups have expressed an interest in having a longer bathing season in some areas. In response, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage has met with stakeholders and has asked the national bathing water expert group, chaired by officials in his Department, to consider the matter and make recommendations on how best to protect bathers' health outside of the current bathing water season and what additional measures may be necessary.

The expert group has developed a questionnaire for the public and one for local authorities to determine who is bathing during the winter months, where this bathing is occurring and the expectations of winter bathers. This information, to be gathered within the coming two months, will inform the development of guidance for bathers outside of the current bathing water season and assist in informing the expert group if any additional changes, including regulatory changes, are required.

I recognise that the Minister of State is here on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and may not be in a position to answer some of the questions I have asked. What the Minister of State has been given by the officials as an answer to this question does not advance the issue one iota. The reality is that there has been a commitment to change the regulations in this State with regard to the definition of the bathing water season.

I understand there has been a commitment to change the definition of bathing water season in regulations in this State. When will that happen? It has not happened yet and it is a simple change. I welcome the work the expert group is doing. SOS Dublin Bay has had meetings with officials, the HSE, the EPA, public representatives, Dublin Port and the local authorities in Dublin. I do not understand why nothing is happening because it is a really simple change to make. We do not need to carry out a survey to ask if changes need to be made to the regulations; they need to be made. There is already a commitment that they will be made. They do not need to ask who is bathing. It does not matter who is bathing. We know that people are swimming in water and we know that they are entitled to peace of mind when they are swimming.

I would like answers to these simple questions. Are we in compliance with our obligations under European law? Are we looking down the barrel of a complaint to the European Commission? What will we do about it if that happens?

As I already mentioned, officials are currently examining the most suitable options to provide for safe bathing water during the winter months and to improve dissemination of information on bathing water quality. We look forward to the recommendations of the expert group in the coming months. The Government is committed to substantial and sustained investment in our water infrastructure which will build on improvements in recent years to deliver enhanced environmental conditions in our rivers, estuaries, lakes and coastal waters.

I take the opportunity to remind members that the draft river basin management plan, which proposes a new level of ambition with over 100 measures outlined to address impacts on water quality, is out for public consultation until the end of this month. I encourage everyone to participate in this process and express their views as this will help to inform and improve the plans, programmes and wider policy developments that impact our waters.

A more comprehensive approach is being taken to hear the views and issues before making decisions in the coming months. I reiterate that a review undertaken by the European Commission found that Ireland is fundamentally in line with the provisions of the relevant directive.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 11.22 a.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 11.36 a.m.
Sitting suspended at 11.22 a.m. and resumed at 11.36 a.m.