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Special Committee on Covid-19 Response debate -
Tuesday, 26 May 2020

Congregated Settings: Direct Provision Centres

We are joined from committee room 1 by officials from the Department of Justice and Equality to deal with the response to the Covid outbreak in direct provision centres. I welcome Ms Oonagh Buckley, deputy Secretary General, civil justice and equality, Mr. Michael Kirrane, assistant secretary and head of immigration service delivery, and Mr. Mark Wilson, principal officer, international protection accommodation services. We are also joined by the following representatives from the HSE: Ms Siobhan McArdle, head of operations, primary care; Dr. Kevin Kelleher, assistant national director, strategic planning and transformation, public health and child health; and Mr. T.J. Dunford, head of service, primary care operations.

I advise our guests that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. While we expect witnesses to answer questions asked by the committee clearly and with candour, they can and should expect to be treated fairly and with respect and consideration at all times, in accordance with the witness protocol.

I invite Ms Buckley to make her opening remarks. I remind members that they will have five to ten minutes for questions and responses from the witnesses. I ask Ms Buckley to keep her opening remarks to five minutes.

Ms Oonagh Buckley

I thank the Acting Chairman and the committee for inviting us to participate in this session to specifically look at how the Department, operating alongside relevant officials from the HSE, has worked to reduce the risk to residents in our centres and address any instance of infection that occurred. As committee members will be aware, the Department has been working to try to address the weaknesses in how we accommodate and provide services to applicants for international protection, while at the same time trying to manage a significant increase in the number applying for protection and seeking accommodation. In addition, fewer people with permission to be in the State have left our centres due to problems with sourcing housing in the wider community.

Consequently, we have been reliant on centres that have been working at almost 100% capacity for the last couple of years, augmented by a series of hotels and bed and breakfasts which provided emergency accommodation. Some of that accommodation consisted of rooms in hotels that continued with their normal commercial business.

When faced with the pandemic, and conscious of the heightened challenges all congregated settings have in that context, particularly centres like ours where people leave every day to work, study and engage with the local community, our key priority was, and continues to be, to ensure the safety and well-being of our residents, centre staff and the wider communities in which they live and work. This has motivated every action we have taken during the pandemic.

Our centres are following the guidelines prepared by the HSE’s Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HPSC, for residential settings with vulnerable residents. I acknowledge the support the HSE has provided to us, in particular its national social inclusion office. Working together, we continue to develop the appropriate policies and responses for the benefit of our residents.

Congregated or residential settings pose specific challenges during this pandemic, but this is not unique to direct provision settings. Shared accommodation is common in homeless and disability services, student accommodation and private rented accommodation. Given that reality, the HSE’s advice on all congregated settings is that during the Covid-19 crisis, non-family members sharing a room in centres are considered to be a household. This means they should implement social distancing measures from other households, that is, residents in other rooms, and they should self-isolate if they are displaying symptoms or if directed to do so by the HSE.

One of our first objectives was to work to cocoon our most vulnerable residents. The Department could readily identify older residents and, in fact, we worked to put in place solutions for residents over the age of 65, rather than 70. As we do not hold medical information about our residents, those considered especially vulnerable to this virus on medical grounds and identified to us by the HSE have also been cocooned for their protection.

We then sought to address issues around providing isolation facilities, given the inevitability that in a pandemic our residents, interacting as they do daily with the communities around them, might contract the virus. We therefore required facilities for self-isolation, both on-site and off-site. Centre managers were instructed to provide up to three rooms on-site. Given the occupancy pressures in the centres, there was also a need for off-site facilities where residents could be cared for until it was safe for them to return to their centre. We identified four suitable premises in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Dundalk, with capacity for 299 people and, in conjunction with local HSE officials, put in place the necessary supports for isolating residents. Each of these facilities has a non-profit organisation on-site providing psychosocial supports to residents and being supported by HSE healthcare professionals.

We also knew we had to reduce the density of residents living in our centres. In recent months, therefore, we have procured more than 1,550 permanent and temporary new direct provision beds. We relocated more than 600 of our residents, about 7% of our total population, in the period from mid-March to early April to support social and physical distancing in centres and enable cocooning measures to be put in place for the most vulnerable. This, I know, has caused no little controversy as we moved residents with much less notice than normal, and with fewer of the interactions with local communities that have become part of better engagement with communities as we try to work to ensure decent accommodation for our residents. By doing this, we have brought the maximum occupancy in any room to not more than three single people in any centre. In addition, we limited the numbers of single persons sharing a room to two for the new locations we have opened in response to the pandemic.

We have worked hard to try to ensure that residents in our centres, and the management and staff, have the tools and knowledge to help prevent outbreaks or reduce their impacts if they occur. Residents in all centres have been made aware of the need to practise social and physical distancing, good hand hygiene, coughing and sneezing etiquette, etc. Translations of public health advice have been provided to all centres and we are communicating with residents and centre managers via regular newsletters, which are also available on our website The newsletters have provided practical information on implementing social and physical distancing and promoted shared learning and best practice across our network of centres. Visitors have not been permitted in our centres since 19 March. I thank the managers and staff of those centres who, given the needs of the pandemic, have continued to act and perform types of work they never thought they would be asked to do. They are front-line workers of another type and I thank them.

To help residents with their personal needs for support, a telephone support service for residents, run by the Jesuit Refugee Service, has recently been launched and Department officials have also begun virtual clinics to engage more directly with residents.

Managers have been asked to increase the standard and frequency of cleaning throughout the centres, paying particular attention to communal areas. A regular supply of hand sanitiser is provided by the Department and distributed by it. Other PPE is also distributed as required and in line with HPSC guidelines on its appropriate use in residential settings. Centre managers have put in place measures to stagger meal times and visits to communal laundries and so on. Where a person is symptomatic and awaiting test results, additional protocols are applied, including around meals and cleaning.

In partnership with the HSE and Safetynet, we have put in place a national clinical telephone service to provide public health advice to support centre management and their staff. It is also being used to advise, support and work with locations where vulnerable groups are present, relating to the implementation of Covid-19 guidelines and measures.

Committee members will be aware of the efforts the Ministers for Justice and Equality, most recently the Minister, Deputy Flanagan and Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, have made over recent years to try to improve the direct provision system, in particular driven by and building on the recommendations made by Mr. Justice McMahon in his report in 2015. At this stage, approximately one quarter of residents have own-door accommodation and approximately half have access to kitchens and food shops so they can live and cook independently. Thousands have access to the labour market. Dozens of our residents are also acting as carers at this time.

New national standards for accommodation providers were published last August and are due to come into force at the beginning of next year. While the process of reform has increased, the Ministers and the officials of the Department here today fully acknowledge that further improvements are required and will continue to act to try to achieve this. An expert group chaired by Dr. Catherine Day is establishing best practice in other European states in the provision of services, including accommodation to international protection applicants, and it is looking at longer term trends and solutions. An interdepartmental group was established to ensure that all Departments are proactively delivering on their responsibilities to international protection applicants and the short-to-medium term options which could be implemented to improve the system. Its report is ready to be submitted to a new Government. Despite the crisis conditions imposed by the pandemic, the work of these two groups is advancing at pace.

My colleagues and I are happy to answer any questions members may have.

I remind members that they have ten minutes, inclusive of responses from the witnesses.

I acknowledge the excellent work of the many organisations and Departments represented here today, and I do so unequivocally. Equally, there is much that could and should have been done better, which, when not done as it should be in terms of best practice, can have a catastrophic impact. I wish to raise this afternoon the catastrophic impact on the lives and quality of life of the residents of the Skellig Star centre and the wider community of Cahersiveen due largely to what I would regard as very poor practice. It is my intention to proceed by posing three short questions. I would appreciate it if those questions could be answered, following which I will continue my line of questioning.

I seek clarification on the following questions. First, did the HSE, as suggested by the Minister for Justice and Equality, fail to inform the Department of Justice and Equality of a positive diagnosis of Covid-19 at the Dublin hotel accommodation base of a large group of asylum seekers? A yes or no answer will suffice. Second, knowing of the positive Covid-19 case, why did the HSE not authorise testing of the group before they were sent to Kerry? Third, will the representatives present explain who made the decision to overrule the legitimate concerns and misgivings of HSE Cork-Kerry about moving a large group of people during a pandemic to a place which Cork-Kerry HSE deemed to be utterly inappropriate given its poor services of primary care available in the area?

Ms Siobhán McArdle

On the first question regarding informing the Department of Justice of Equality, I will pass that question to my colleague, Dr. Kelleher, because it relates to public health guidance in regard to the informing around public health outbreaks.

Dr. Kevin Kelleher

When instances happen, wherever they happen around a case being identified, the individual case is spoken to as to who would likely be their contacts.

That is what happens in these circumstances. It is my understanding that the first case arose approximately 12 to 14 days after the person involved was moved. It is unlikely that was as a consequence of what happened in the hotel. Even so, as a consequence of the investigations carried out by the public health people in the hotel, there was no need to speak to people outside the group that was concerned because of the way they lived together at that time.

Ms Siobhán McArdle

The second question relates to authorisation or information related to testing. The testing programme for Covid-19 towards the end of March related to people who presented with symptoms of the virus. At that point, people were advised to contact their GPs. They continue to be advised to do so and their GPs will discuss their clinical symptoms and refer them for a Covid-19 test. With regarding to mass testing, which is a proposal in this instance, I will pass the question to Dr. Kelleher as it is a public health query.

Dr. Kevin Kelleher

The public health people concerned will assess the position at that point and make a decision about who - including what groups - needs to be tested. That is what happened. At that point, the totally appropriate decision in the circumstances was made.

I absolutely dispute the fact that residents of the hotel accommodation in Dublin were not impacted by the positive diagnosis. Equally, I am still not clear who overruled the HSE in Cork and Kerry and its misgivings. I will move on, however.

I note from the submission by the HSE head of primary care that the HSE is of the view that the first case of suspected Covid-19 in the Skellig Star occurred on 30 March. That date puzzles me because I have verifiable evidence of a written communication from the Skellig Star to the Department of Justice and Equality on 24 March confirming a suspected case of Covid-19. The resident concerned was placed in isolation on 20 March, one day after arrival in Cahersiveen. Two points arise. If the Department of Justice and Equality knew of a suspected case on 24 March, why was the HSE not aware of it until 30 March, almost a week later? The timeline might not be of importance to either the HSE or the Department of Justice and Equality but it is very important to the residents of the Skellig Star and the community of Cahersiveen. This timeline confirms unequivocally that Covid-19 was transported by bus on 18 March and 19 March to the Skellig Star and the community of Cahersiveen. I say this without apportioning any blame whatsoever to the residents of the Skellig Star. Rather, I apportion absolute culpability to the HSE and the Department of Justice and Equality for not conducting the necessary Covid-19 testing prior to those people leaving Dublin. To my mind, at the very least this was a grave oversight and at worst an unequivocal dereliction of duty of care to all concerned.

I also raise a point concerning oversight of the Skellig Star as it currently operates. As has been made clear in previous discussions, the HSE has indicated that it advises, recommends or suggests appropriate public health measures but that it is up to the operator to implement those recommendations. The Department of Justice and Equality has delegated operations on the ground to a private operator in return, no doubt, for a substantial fee. The key question I wish to pose is who, among the organisations whose representations are assembled here, including the HSE and the Department of Justice and Equality, has oversight of what the operator is doing on the ground? Is it the HSE, the Department of Justice and Equality or neither body?

Are the witnesses aware the operator did not appear at the Skellig Star until 26 March, eight days after residents first arrived? Is that oversight? Untrained staff were left in charge, resulting in chaotic scenes when residents arrived on 18 March. There was no social distancing, no beds were available and sufficient rooms had not been prepared. I could raise a number of specific points regarding daily oversight at the Skellig Star but time does not allow. I will, therefore, mention just one.

Are the Department of Justice and Equality and the HSE aware that no professional deep cleansing of the Skellig Star has ever taken place, from 18 March to this very day, 26 May? That is despite 25 confirmed cases of Covid-19. How is it being cleaned? I will tell the committee how it is being cleaned. Mr. Price Stardrops, a white vinegar spray Mr. Price advertises as being cheaper than all the rest at €1.49 a bottle, is what is being using throughout this entire pandemic to clean and disinfect the Skellig Star Hotel. Is that best practice? Is that acceptable? Is that good enough, given that there have been 25 positive cases in the Skellig Star?

I have asked for an independent inspection of the Skellig Star building. The Minister, Deputy Flanagan, refused on the grounds of the health and safety of workers carrying out the inspections. Yet, the HSA can investigate more than 400 meat plants and construction sites can be investigated for proper adherence to social distancing measures. The quality of life and health and welfare of the residents living 24-7 in an infected and unsuitable building cannot be provided for, yet all these other inspections can take place. It is utterly shambolic and unacceptable. I ask the Department to do the honourable thing, that is, carry out inspections and close the building. I would appreciate any answers in the time that is left.

Ms Oonagh Buckley

If the Deputy has verifiable evidence of a report to the Department on 24 March, we would like to see it because we have not been able to establish any evidence of knowledge in the Department prior to 30 March when a centre manager reported to our daily helpline that he had one case of a person self-isolating. That is the first report we have been able to find, but if Deputy Foley has verifiable evidence of something earlier, she should please share it with us and we can then check our systems.

We have to go by HSE advice on testing and our colleagues from the HSE have already explained the protocols around testing. As to the view of Deputy Foley that there is culpability around a lack of testing, I cannot concur with that because there are protocols around how testing should happen.

With regard to oversight of the service provider, the Department of Justice and Equality is the responsible Department for direct provision centres. They are our residents and are people for whom we have the ultimate responsibility. Normally we would have a protocol of three unannounced inspections of every centre every year. That is what we aim for. It has been difficult to achieve given the number of centres we are now running. In the context of the pandemic, we have to consider our staff and their health and safety.

As it happens, the Deputy may not be aware that a member of staff was present on the night the centre was opened. In fact, she stayed in the centre to see that everything was right. The Deputy will be aware that there were a number of teething problems as the centre opened because it was opened quickly and there was no time to spend four to six weeks, which is the norm, making sure everything was working correctly. The staff member who stayed made sure that the centre was as proposed, that people settled into it, that heating was provided in each room because, as the Deputy knows, the boiler had problems in the intervening period, and that the necessary arrangements were in place for the centre.

I understand what the Deputy is saying about the centre's staff who almost certainly came from a previous employer, as is the law. We also encourage centre managers to employ locally because that provides good jobs to communities. We have been very consistent. We opened the centre much faster than normal. We did not have the time to do what we normally do in these circumstances. The centre manager did not have the time. We have been in daily contact with the centre manager over the past six to eight weeks. I speak to the Minister every day about the Skellig Star in Cahersiveen. We have regular interactions with the staff and are constantly looking at what they are doing. We are happy that the centre is now being run very effectively and well. There are good facilities in the centre and we are happy it is working well for the residents that remain in the centre at this time.

We have to move on. The next speaker for the Sinn Féin slot is Deputy Pa Daly who is taking ten minutes.

First of all, I thank all the witnesses for coming in to answer our questions. I will address the first question to Ms Buckley. Ms Buckley mentioned the national standards published in August of last year. One of the first themes in the national standards relates to how there must be a responsive workforce and how recruitment of staff should be able to deliver safe and effective services for both children and adults. Ms Buckley mentioned that the 15 staff in the centre had to learn new skills. Had any of them any experience whatsoever in working in a direct provision centre beforehand? Had any of them partaken of the Tusla course? Had any of them even been Garda vetted? Is it true that two of the managers actually left in the first four weeks after the centre opened on 19 March?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

What I can say now is that all staff have now completed the Tusla course and all staff have now been Garda vetted. I want to come back to the question of the timeframe for that.

The Deputy asked about the opening sessions. There was some change in the management. I believe one person resigned in the first week or so. The centre manager in place now is a very experienced centre manager who ran a direct provision centre for many years. Considerable experience has been put into the direct provision at this point.

Now I will come back to the Garda vetting. It was brought to our attention on Wednesday last that there may have been staff on site who had not been Garda vetted. We immediately reached out to the Garda vetting unit. The unit indicated to us that there were concerns about the way in which the Garda vetting had been done and the fact that there were some staff on site who had not been Garda vetted. This is a very serious thing. It is obviously the employer's obligation to ensure Garda vetting is done. It is also part of our governance structures and we have to ensure that it is done. I can now say that, with the co-operation of the Garda vetting unit, all staff who need to be Garda vetted have been Garda vetted as of Monday. However, it was an unacceptable thing that happened and it was something that-----

At the time that it was opened had any of them been Garda vetted? Had any of them done the course? Had any of them any experience in working in a direct provision centre?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

At the time it opened, a number of them had been Garda vetted but not for that location. As to their experience of working in a direct provision centre, I would not know that off the top of my head. I will have to come back to the committee with that information.

Ms Buckley mentioned that it was important for the Department to ensure the safety and well-being of all residents. That includes in respect of the accommodation provided. Under the theme of national standards, which Ms Buckley also mentioned, the document states that the planning and design of accommodation should be informed by the needs of residents. This includes the need for own-door accommodation and accommodation which is homely, accessible and furnished. Moreover, privacy, dignity and safety should be protected and promoted. Is it not the case that none of the rooms provided were own-door? There was no own-door accommodation. The rooms in the former hotel did not even have a kettle. Sharing of bedrooms had to be undertaken by approximately 60 of the residents who went there first. Social distancing in this hotel was completely absent because the residents had to share the laundry, lifts, corridors and dining facilities. Is that not the case?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

First, Deputy Daly is quite right to say that the standards were published last August. They come into force on 1 January next year, as I said. They are standards that we will be working actively to go towards. It would be very much our preference that, instead of having one quarter of our residents in own-door accommodation, we would have 100% of our residents in own-door accommodation. We are quite a long way from that as of yet, and in those circumstances people have to share facilities. They have to share laundries and bathrooms in many cases. Many of our single residents have to share with strangers. That is the state of play and it was the state of play when we opened the Skellig Star Hotel. The same standards that would apply in many of our centres apply in the Skellig Star.

I think the Skellig Star was first reviewed or surveyed, or whatever the phrase is, by someone from the Department of Justice and Equality in August or September of last year.

Presumably, that person was aware of the minimum standards and may have been aware of the joint committee's report, which stated that the Department of Justice and Equality should avoid isolated locations with few public transport services, amenities or employment, should avoid emergency accommodation and should have child-friendly spaces for recreation of children. The report also stated that there should be specialised training for staff on residents who may have suffered trauma, sexual abuse or domestic abuse in the past. Was any of this taken into account by the person who went down to look at this premises in September of last year?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

The official working for me who carried out the inspection on 18 September examined the premises in the context of a framework for procurement against which we work and which has certain minimum standards. With respect, we have to go with what is offered to us under the current model of acquisition and procurement of accommodation for direct provision. As I keep repeating, we are not happy with the current model and we would like to move away from it but we are not there yet.

The new standards had been in place a month before that person went down to Cahersiveen, so was it a survey, or what exactly was the purpose-----

Ms Oonagh Buckley

He inspects the premises for suitability against our procurement framework, that is, whether it meets the size standards for rooms and so on. If we had filled the Skellig Star to its maximum capacity against our standards, it could have accommodated between 150 and 160 people. We never put that many people down there. I think that at the maximum the number of people was 103.

Regarding the size of rooms and so on, the Department is still using - I ask Ms Buckley to correct me if I am wrong - the McMahon report, which uses a definition from the Housing Act 1966 as the minimum space required for a bedroom, which is 4.65 sq. m. That is about the size of a double bed. Is that standard, referred to in the publication which came out last August, still the one the Department will use into the future?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

That standard is what we currently measure against when properties are offered to us. The new standards, when they come into force next year, will be higher. In the meantime, we have taken the voluntary decision to reduce the number of people we have sharing any room, regardless of size, to a maximum of three. In fact, in many of our centres we now have a maximum of two strangers sharing a room. Obviously, family units continue to share.

When the outbreak occurred in Cahersiveen, an offer was put to the PRO, who contacts the local elected representatives, of other accommodation in a holiday village in the county. That would have been own-door accommodation. Two of the cottages were actually offered for free. In an effort to take some families out of the Skellig Star, an offer was made. That was turned down by the Department. Is that correct and, if so, could Ms Buckley indicate why it was turned down?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

That is correct. We had a number of reasons for that, but one of the principal reasons is that direct provision is not just a bed for the night. A lot of services, a lot of food and a lot of other issues have to be provided. We are very pleased that somebody was willing to offer us accommodation. We would much prefer if people offered us accommodation that we could rent under the HAP system and if we could move our nearest 1,000 people with permission to remain into that accommodation. If that gentleman were willing to rent us his accommodation on a HAP basis, we would be very happy to try to see whether we could accommodate some of the people with permission to remain in the State who need housing. We would be very keen to get them out of their current accommodation. If we could move those 1,000 people into the wider community, we would then be in a position to stop our use of so much emergency accommodation.

I thank Ms Buckley for that. Did any further inspection take place between September and March, after the initial inspection? When exactly was the decision made to move to Cahersiveen and who made it? What criteria were used? Who decided which people to pick? There is a feeling in Cahersiveen that women and families were brought down there just to appease the local residents in case they had any fears that there would be single men in the area. Is that correct?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

To answer the questions in order, the decision was taken that we needed to take people out of these hotels where there was commercial business going on because at that time, as the Deputy will recall, the big risk was that the virus would come in with foreign travellers from abroad. While we had residents who were staying in the same accommodation as people travelling from abroad, we felt that was our biggest risk.

We needed to concentrate all of our residents in centres where we were the sole occupant and could apply a greater degree of control over people coming in and out of the centres. As to who took the decision, I did.

Ms Buckley did.

Ms Oonagh Buckley

We signed the contract on 16 March. The decision was taken the previous week that we would have to move people. Having signed the contract on 16 March, we moved the first residents on 18 March. When I say that happened much more quickly than normal, I am not exaggerating. As the committee knows, we would normally take some weeks to engage with the local community and we would probably be able to shape the residents that needed to travel and so forth. In this case, however, we had to move populations from five different locations, four of which were in Dublin, to a number of areas. Cahersiveen was only one.

Finally, given that the-----

I am sorry, Deputy, but we have to move on. I have allowed an extra minute.

The next slot is Fine Gael's. I call Deputy Carroll MacNeill, who has ten minutes.

I thank Ms Buckley and the HSE staff for attending. I will ask Ms Buckley a couple of brief questions to clarify some figures. How many centres are there operating now and how many were operating previously?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

It is a movable feast. We closed one centre over the weekend for the same reason we stopped using it earlier in the season. Currently, we have residents in 84 locations. That number includes 47 direct provision centres - I will have to take the figures out, as they change regularly - and 33 emergency accommodation facilities. We have four self-isolating facilities and we are using five other facilities for density reduction. There are 84 centres in total at present.

Will Ms Buckley confirm the total number of residents there, including those who have permission to reside?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

We have just short of 1,000, something like 988, people with permission to reside. There would be more but for the fact that we have had to reduce our-----

I know, but I am asking for the total number, including those with permission to reside.

Ms Oonagh Buckley

We have 7,700 residents who are in the asylum process or post it and a further 250 who are refugees and who live in what are called EROCs, or emergency reception and orientation centres. We are treating them identically to direct provision centres for now.

The Department relocated approximately 600 of that number.

Ms Oonagh Buckley

We relocated approximately 600 of that number over the course of two and a half weeks.

That is fine. The committee has a report from the HPSC on outbreaks in vulnerable population settings. It states that 14 outbreaks in direct provision centres were notified, with 175 cases linked to those outbreaks. Is that the Department's information? Is that the total number of cases in direct provision centres or are there more and the 175 are just linked to those outbreaks?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

Unfortunately, I cannot verify those figures. They are not the Department of Justice and Equality's figures.

Perhaps someone from the HSE could verify them.

Ms Oonagh Buckley

They are different from what we know. I might have to pass that question to my colleagues in the HSE.

In the interests of time, could someone from the HSE answer, please? According to the HPSC's report, 175 cases are linked to the 14 clusters. Is that the universe of cases in direct provision centres or is it just the number of cases linked to the outbreaks, is there a different number and, if so, what is that number?

Dr. Kevin Kelleher

It is almost certainly close to the total. It would be uncommon for there not to be an outbreak once there was a case and we would know about it. The number mentioned relates explicitly to the 14 outbreaks. I doubt if there are many more than that, but I cannot say explicitly because of the way the information comes. In particular, it would be difficult to say in respect of people living in some of the other accommodation that Ms Buckley mentioned and that would not be as easily identifiable to us as direct provision services. The figure cited is explicitly what we know about at the moment.

It is a little troubling that we do not have a figure for the number of people who have been identified as having Covid-19 in these centres. Shall I take it that this is the correct number? Does Dr. Kelleher wish to clarify for the committee later?

Dr. Kevin Kelleher

I can revert and let the committee know whether that is not so, but I would imagine it is very close.

According to the report, 13 of those people were hospitalised and there were no intensive care admissions or deaths. Is that consistent with the HSE's information?

Dr. Kevin Kelleher

Yes, it is. It is important to note that these figures include both residents and staff. In outbreaks such as this, the figures identify and include both residents and staff.

Can Dr. Kelleher provide to the committee by way of correspondence the number of residents who have-----

Dr. Kevin Kelleher

If that comes out clearly from the data, we will provide that.

I thank Dr. Kelleher.

On some of the information provided, the Irish Refugee Council did a survey on how people had experienced this pandemic. There are a number of interesting findings. Some 83% of respondents said that they did not have access to information about the pandemic. I appreciate in certain circumstances that there would be language issues or other communication barriers. I note from Ms Buckley's comments the level of effort that she has put in to communicating about the pandemic. If those figures are correct, it seems, according to this information that it has not gone okay. Can Ms Buckley give some information on the particular efforts she has made in communicating the public health advice to people in these environments, please?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

I thank the Deputy for her question. From the get-go we knew that communicating with centre managers and the centre residents was going to be one of the biggest challenges we would have. We established a new team drawn from staff across the Department who volunteered for this work, and set up a system where firstly we rang every centre manager on a daily basis. We asked how things were progressing, and if there were things that they needed, for example PPE, or whatever. We were receiving direct information from centre managers.

We also started centre newsletters initially for centre managers, which were issued twice or three times a week. We then started doing one for centre residents which went out at least once a week, but sometimes more frequently than that. That provides a great deal of information, often in many languages, for the centre residents. We have multiple languages and people with multiple levels of capacity in languages in our centres, which is something we are very conscious of. We therefore tend to try to have as many communications as possible published in the major languages. I am sure we do not reach everybody every time. We will continue to do this and to keep pushing information into our centres.

One of the recent innovations which we asked centre managers to set up was for WhatsApp broadcasts for all of their residents. Broadcast is a more secure way of sending information out; it can be sent directly into the phones of residents as it comes through, which is done through constant efforts, reminding and reiteration. We also try to ensure that centre managers themselves are putting up appropriate signage, etc. We continue to do that on a daily basis.

That sounds very much like it is coming from the Department. Can Ms Buckley help me understand the relationship as to lead responsibility between the Department of Justice and Equality and the HSE especially at the early stages as to the provision of this guidance? How has that relationship worked? Can both of our witnesses please comment briefly on any lessons learned from that experience?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

We have been very reliant on the HSE and it has done a great amount of work with us and for us in helping us manage the population. As Dr. Kelleher has said, that has thankfully led to a situation where we have not had a single serious case of Covid-19 in our centres so far and long may that remain the case.

One of the lessons that we have learned is that before the pandemic, health services were provided to residents of the centres in the same way as they were provided to all the citizens of this country. Asylum seekers get a medical card and access GP services in that way. We are reliant on national advice from the national social inclusion office. That system is perfectly adequate for normal health needs of residents in normal times, possibly with the exception of mental health, but as our population is reasonably young and healthy, it is probably not enough at this time. I have written to the HSE, and to a colleague of Ms McArdle's, requesting that it review the types of supports that it offers to vulnerable persons, including to direct provision centres, at this time, whether on a national or regional basis. That is certainly a lesson that we have learned.

In the interests of time, is that correspondence that can be shared with the committee, from the point of view of transparency?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

I will be happy to share my letter to which I have not received a reply as yet, which I am sure is under preparation at this time.

Is there anything that the HSE would like to say on the lessons learned in the relationship and how things have been?

Ms Siobhán McArdle

Even prior to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a very robust and integrated engagement between the HSE and the International Protection Accommodation Service, IPAS, under the governance of the Department of Justice and Equality.

They have been working closely together to provide health guidance and supports to new arrivals into the country as well as providing public health information and linking people into the health supports in their communities, wherever those communities may be. In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, or even in advance of that, there has been an increased level of meetings held and measures taken at national and local levels. At a local level, in each community healthcare organisation our social inclusion services work within primary care services to ensure that every resident in direct provision receives all the information required to support his or her health outcome. At a practical level, that means engaging people with their GP services in the wide range of primary care centres-----

I thank Ms McArdle. I only have about 30 seconds left and I want to ask the Department one more question. I am terribly sorry to interrupt. As I understand it, there have not been new cases presenting to Ireland at the rate there had been. What steps is the Department taking to use what might be described as a lull or a pause in new applications to try to expedite the processing of existing applications or has the Department been hampered in that way because of the courts being limited in their sittings?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

In point of fact, 773 people presented seeking international protection over the course of the first few months of this year. The numbers have fallen off in the last month or so but we were still getting a steady stream of people applying for international protection and seeking to access the accommodation services up until the middle of April. As soon as any travel restrictions are lifted, that flow will happen again. We have consistently allowed people to apply for asylum and we have never stopped that. However, we have had to restrict a lot of access to our buildings. Unfortunately, the Department's systems are largely paper-based and that has very much restricted our capacity to take decisions. We are actively planning for a resumption of that work, which should allow us to resume taking decisions, particularly positive decisions that we hope will allow people the opportunity to move on with their lives.

I want to ask Ms McArdle of the HSE a question to start. Ms McArdle mentioned that she worked closely with IPAS. Did she know or was she notified in advance of the transfer of direct provision residents by IPAS to new locations where they would be sharing with strangers?

Ms Siobhán McArdle

On the opening of the centre in Cahersiveen, as my colleagues in the Department of Justice and Equality stated, we were also informed of the opening on March 16. That information was provided to the HSE national social inclusion office as well as to the local community healthcare organisation. At that point, the community healthcare organisation, particularly its social inclusion services, would have had multiple engagements in the following days to ensure that access to health services was put in place for all the new residents. Given that the opening of the centre was happening at the time of the Covid-19 pandemic, our national social inclusion office - the membership of which includes a number of public health specialists - would also have provided guidance from a public health point of view. That would have supported our colleagues in terms of-----

Was the building checked for suitability by the HSE in advance of the people arriving?

Ms Siobhán McArdle

No it would not have been checked by the HSE. That would not be part of the normal protocol. Advice was given around public health guidance and around access to health supports but it would not be usual practice for the HSE to inspect a building.

It is a pandemic and there are issues around social distancing. It is not normal practice but I am suggesting that perhaps it should have been done. Can Ms McArdle clarify how many people in direct provision centres have been tested and how many have not been tested as of today or what are the HSE's most recent figures?

Ms Siobhán McArdle

We will have to come back to the Deputy on that.

The HSE does not know.

Ms Siobhán McArdle

No, we would not have that level of detail. We can say that any person, as with any member of the population, who presented with symptoms that are suggestive of Covid-19 would have been encouraged and supported to access his or her GP or a GP service to ensure he or she was referred to-----

These are congregated settings, however, and we are specifically talking about them because people are vulnerable in congregated settings and Ms McArdle is telling me the HSE does not know how many people in this congregated setting have been tested.

Dr. Kevin Kelleher

I have some figures. So far, we have tested 1,734 people.

In our direct numbers there is another 959 and so far there have been just over 350 cases. So the positivity rate is somewhere around 6% to 8%.

That sounds like a quarter of people have been tested.

Dr. Kevin Kelleher

I cannot-----

I shall leave it at that and suggest that everyone in these congregated settings should be tested.

I have a question for the representatives of the Department of Justice and Equality. The ongoing public health advice provided by the HSE, and in its statement provided to us in advance today, single-room occupancy was mentioned three times, if not four times, as the public health advice. Why did the Department not follow the public health advice? Earlier it was mentioned that the Department has to go by HSE advice on testing. Why not the HSE advice on distancing?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

The HPSC advice does not mandate single-room occupancy. Certainly, I have not seen any such advice nor has any been given to me.

We have a document today that refers, in three or four different places, to single-room occupancy except for families. The ongoing public advice provided by the HSE is what that is saying.

Ms Oonagh Buckley

I have not seen that document, Deputy. He would have to share it with me. I am not aware of any document that mandates single-room occupancy.

It does not mandate but recommends; it is public health advice, I think. How many new households were created? When I say households I mean people who did not know each other in advance. How many new households were created, since the beginning of the pandemic, by moving people either within or between new or already established centres? How many new households do we have, if Ms Buckley understands my question?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

I do, Deputy. I will have to come back to him on that because it would involve us doing a calculation on how many cases we moved of existing cohorts of people and put them together where they were, so that would not be the creation of a new household. I would have to check how many times we put single people, who had not shared rooms together before, into new rooms. I will see if we can work that out and get back to the Deputy with the figure.

That is a crucial point. These are people who did not know each other and are strangers. They are put into a room where they have no other choice but to share with a stranger and obviously the risk level is very high. I would appreciate if Ms Buckley could tell us how many households have been newly created and put into a more vulnerable situation.

We will now move on to the Labour Party's slot; Deputy Duncan Smith that he has five minutes.

I direct my first question to Ms Buckley. The direct provision system is what I consider to be an inhumane and difficult system in which people must survive. Ms Buckley mentioned that she will be back in terms of some regular business and try to process applications for citizenship. If we are on a downward trend for Covid-19, and hopefully we are, there are fears of a second wave and a flu outbreak in the winter. Have Ms Buckley or any senior officials in her Department considered a fast-tracking approach for citizenship or a citizenship amnesty for asylum seekers in this period? Such a scheme would empower asylum seekers to move into the community, access payments, access the housing assistance payment, to make their way and contribute to Irish life and not spend another winter living in direct provision.

Ms Oonagh Buckley

There are a couple of issues. Permission to remain or the grant of refugee status does not actually give one citizenship. There is a further requirement of residency that takes a number of years. I assume the Deputy is talking about permission to remain in the broader sense.

As I mentioned earlier, we have nearly 1,000 people with permission to remain who remain in our centres. We would like them very much to be accommodated in the wider community because that would free up a lot of space in our centres for the people for whom we have to provide accommodation.

We have certainly been asked by the Minister and the Government to examine the case of undocumented workers and to look at people in the wider community who may not have a current status. We have not been asked to fasttrack things. We have not needed to be asked because we are constantly working on trying to improve the speed with which we take decisions on whether people are granted permission to remain or not.

We have not been asked to change the criteria on the basis of which we make those decisions.

Would Ms Buckley be minded to recommend to the Minister to change any criteria at this time in light of what has happened during this outbreak? Would she be sending any memos to the Minister on the basis of her experiences in the past few weeks?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

That is the sort of policy decision a Government would have to take, and probably an incoming Government. They would be the sort of decisions that the caretaker Government would find difficult to achieve. If I was asked to prepare such a proposal, I could certainly look at that. Obviously, we have some sterling examples of people who have worked very hard in places such as care settings who live within our centres, many of whom have permission to remain, as it happens, but some of whom do not. There would be, perhaps, ways of adjusting some of our more individual considerations that could allow us to do that if we were so asked by a Government.

My next question is for the HSE and follows on from Deputy Joe O'Brien's questions on testing. We have had 1,734 tests so far. What are the criteria as regards further tests? Is it just people who have developed symptoms or who have asked to be tested because of that, or is there a protocol for further systematic testing in direct provision centres? Are there concerns that people in the direct provision system are afraid to speak up and say they have symptoms for fear that they may be moved away from their support services and networks in their specific centres? Are there any actions to counter that?

Dr. Kevin Kelleher

My maths was not good enough when I was answering earlier. So far, I have got a record of us performing just shy of 2,700 tests, of which 180 were positive. There were ten places tested where no case was identified, which gets us close to 1,000 tests. It shows a very different picture across the system. There were some places with nobody positive at all. Our current position is that we would take it on board primarily as a consequence of symptoms of an individual who shows signs of Covid-19. We would then investigate that with a clinician as a consequence and decide how to progress it. One would hope that the first person would be asked to be properly isolated such that they would then reduce the risk of passing on to anybody else and the person they were sharing a room with, if that was so, would then be asked to isolate as well and restrict their movements.

In a word, there is no recurrent, consistent testing of people in direct provision.

Dr. Kevin Kelleher

At the moment, our advice is that there is no need to carry out repeat testing, particularly because, as a consequence of the process, we have just gone through a whole host of different residential facilities and shown up very few cases.

We will move on to the Social Democrats slot. I call Deputy Catherine Murphy.

We know that the first time the Minister found out about there being a positive Covid case in advance of the move was when my office contacted the Department. The reason we were given was that it was to de-risk, as we heard earlier. When did the HSE know there was a positive case in the Swords hotel?

Dr. Kevin Kelleher

We knew there was a case in the Swords hotel, if the Deputy is referring to the Travelodge-----

Dr. Kevin Kelleher

We knew about that slightly earlier that month.

Why would that not have been communicated to the Department of Justice and Equality?

Dr. Kevin Kelleher

We deal with the individual case as it is and the information we had was such that the group, the individual and the group they were part of, had contact internally and with nobody else by the criteria we have, which are very well known, around the contacts we talk about.

I was given subsequent information and I raised the matter in the Dáil a couple of weeks ago, although I still have not received a reply. There was a large group from a hostel in north Dublin moved into the Swords hotel very soon after the move by the other group to Cahersiveen.

Will Ms Buckley confirm or deny this was the case and that another group was moved into the Swords hotel?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

Once the Swords hotel was no longer accommodating other residents we started to use it again to accommodate people, particularly new arrivals. However, towards the end of last week we became aware that the particular hotel was starting its economic business again and was taking in paying customers. In the circumstances we felt the same risk issues arose so we have ceased our use of that hotel and have moved all of the residents to other facilities in Dublin.

Is Ms Buckley aware that within days of the exchange happening between Cahersiveen and the new group arriving from north Dublin into that hotel that a number of hotel staff members ended up with a positive Covid diagnosis?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

The first we became aware of anything about positive cases in the Travelodge in Swords was when we received the letter from the Deputy's office. We then contacted hotel management to find out what was going on and it was they who told us what happened, as the Minister has said to the Deputy. I will have to check what was said to us about the staff. Obviously, that is the personal information of staff. I can come back to the Deputy as to whether we were told staff members had been infected.

Were other guests in the hotel when the new group was moved in following the move of the first group to Cahersiveen?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

Again, I will have to check that for the Deputy and I am happy to come back and do so.

I have been trying to get this information for the past few weeks.

Ms Oonagh Buckley

We will try to establish it for the Deputy.

It needs to be closed off.

What is the chain of command in terms of notification between the HSE and the Department of Justice and Equality where scenarios such as these present themselves?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

Perhaps Mr. Wilson is best placed to speak about how we go about notifying people. I presume the Deputy is talking about opening centres. Is that correct?

Yes, and moving people in situations such as in this case where the HSE was aware of a Covid case but the Department of Justice and Equality was not told. Where is the chain of command? Who made this decision?

Mr. Mark Wilson

A decision to move applicants is made by IPAS. We consider the competing pressures and risks attached to where we have people and move them as we have to. It is an ongoing system that has a large number of new arrivals and, therefore, there must be movement within the system for the system to operate. As was explained earlier, when we open a new centre there is a requirement that we wait until the contract is signed before we can communicate it to our colleagues not only in the HSE but also in the Department of Education and Skills-----

I was really trying to deal with issues in this Covid environment. Who in the HSE is responsible for communicating in a situation where there is a Covid positive case in a hotel? Who was responsible for notifying the Department of Justice and Equality in this situation, where it was known that it was also a direct provision centre?

Mr. Mark Wilson

The environment has been evolving over the past two months. What would happen with that matter now is that the public health section would make contact with the Department of Justice and Equality and convene an outbreak control team meeting. That public health-led process would ensure proper communication is maintained throughout the outbreak. In respect of movements in the second week of March, the environment was very different. We were responding very quickly. That was within the second week of activity ratcheting up in terms of concerns. If the Deputy recalls, there was the potential for a wave of 25,000 cases by the end of that month. Decisions had to be made. IPAS and I liaised with the national social inclusion office. We considered the issues attached to whether to make a decision to move-----

Really, a line would have done. I did not need a big long reply that really did not answer my question. It does not appear very clear what the line of communication is. Could somebody communicate with me in writing to tell me what the line of communication is in a situation where there is a Covid positive case? Who has responsibility to notify the Department of Justice and Equality with regard to a direct provision centre?

Perhaps that could be followed up with me in writing.

All members have been sent the submission from the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland that contains many photographs of the interiors of direct provision centres. As soon as I saw how cramped and crowded and on top of each other people were, it reminded me of playing house as a kid, with bricks and stones and lumps of planks, and of pushing everything together so we could all lie down together and have a mess. That is no way to treat human beings but the evidence for it in the context of Covid is quite shocking.

The reality is that the HSE has given advice for all congregated settings to the effect that, during Covid, non-family members sharing a room are considered to be a household. We have a particular difficulty with this in direct provision because of the overcrowding to which I have just referred but also because, much of the time, people who are sharing rooms do not speak the same language, are not of the same religion and do not get to know each other. Do the witnesses agree with that advice? If they do not agree with it in the context of direct provision, have they ever objected to it, sought clarification on it or looked for it to be changed?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

It is not our place to disagree with that advice, and it is the advice we are working under. It reflects the fact that, in congregated settings of this type, and direct provision is only one, there are particular difficulties in applying social distancing in that context. These guidelines take account of that, which is what they have to do because there are settings like this, such as direct provision, disability services and homelessness services, across a broad range of the areas where people who are not members of one family are sharing rooms. The advice has to take account of that and we have to try to apply best practice around that. Ireland is not unique in this regard. The EU guidance on this matter reflects almost entirely what we have done in terms of trying to ensure best practice. However, acknowledging the fact-----

That is fine. The point I want to make is that if it is not their job to query that advice, it is their job to look after the occupants of direct provision. I am of the view that those two things are contradictory. The Minister recently stated on radio that they are in his care and if anyone works for the Minister, surely their care should matter to those who look after them.

On 12 March, the Taoiseach stated that gatherings of 100 or more people indoors should be cancelled. The provision of services in the canteen at Knockalisheen direct provision centre, where over 200 asylum seekers receive their meals, was not cancelled. Distancing in areas such as communal toilets and showers in Kinsale Road, Great Western House, the Glenvera Hotel, Hazel Lodge, Clare Lodge, Cahersiveen and other locations was not possible and did not happen.

The residents in Cahersiveen received a letter, which I presume came from the Department, although the witnesses might clarify that. It stated that, unfortunately, there had been two new confirmed cases in the past week and that this was clear evidence that some residents were not following the public health recommendations, thereby causing further infection. It also stated that the period of advised restrictions on movement would need to be extended for a further 14 days and that because social distancing was not being followed by everybody, the period of recommended self-isolation was to be extended. Translating this into layman's terms, it means that the residents of these areas who cannot self-isolate or socially distance correctly are being blamed for their own plight. Will the witnesses comment?

Ms Siobhán McArdle

That letter was part of a suite of communication that was provided in the centre. It was prepared on the basis of both public health guidance and knowledge of how the centre was operating. However, I would counter that the authors did not wish to apportion blame to any of the residents and that it was merely a reminder of the importance of adhering to the public health guidance. I have to say also that it was supported by on-site supports. There is a HSE support community health care worker to attend on-site seven days a week, who provides and supports residents in terms of interpreting the public health advice and, where queries arise, engaging with centre management to support residents in adhering to that public health guidance. It was by way of providing additional communication and to explain to residents why the period of extension was happening.

The letter stated there is clear evidence that some residents are not following the public health recommendations and because social distancing is not being followed by everybody, the lockdown has to be extended for 14 further days. That sounds like they are being blamed for their own plight. I repeat to the witnesses that these centres are totally inadequate for the purposes of self-isolation and social distancing, particularly during this crisis. If anything, it has exposed the horrors and inhumanity of direct provision in a sharp way. Who is the author of that letter to the residents?

Dr. Kevin Kelleher

There was at that time an outbreak control team meeting every two days. It came out as a consequence of one of those meetings and the committee involved.

Did the committee write this and order it to be sent to the residents in Cahersiveen?

Dr. Kevin Kelleher

I would imagine it was written by a member of the committee, which agreed to it, and it was then sent out as a consequence of the meeting. One could read it either way, that it was directed to the residents or to the management. It stated what was required to try to control the outbreak at that time.

It stated that it was a notice to all residents of the Skellig Star accommodation centre.

Dr. Kevin Kelleher

That is correct and solutions then followed much more as a consequence, as the Deputy heard. The Department helped to move people as a consequence. The system took it on board and the Department and managers of the unit were involved in those meetings.

The evidence shows everybody should be moved out of that direct provision centre and alternatives provided. That would be the solution to this horrendous mess and the inhumane conditions these people are being forced to live under, and God knows for how long more. None of us knows when this pandemic is going to subside or become a thing of history.

Thank you, Deputy Smith, we must move on. I call Deputy Shanahan from the Regional Group.

It is fair to say many inadequacies in our public health policy are being shown up by Covid-19. The direct provision situation is at the top end of things that must be addressed. I will ask a number of questions and the respondents can come back at the end.

I have two questions for the Department of Justice and Equality. The witness said at the start that all staff have been Garda vetted and Tusla-approved. What training has been undertaken, if any, in terms of understanding the requirements of infection control? Ms McArdle said there are people on site but there is a significant issue around communication and translation, particularly in terms of having something in writing, which I ask the witnesses to look at.

Given what we now know, has the Department or the HSE looked at doing a review or analysis of the asylum process and the length of time it takes for applications to be considered? A "Yes" or "No" answer will suffice. The rate of refusal last year was approximately 67%. The question that first comes to mind is why we have people waiting so long to get an application approved or otherwise. This would seem to feed into the numbers.

In terms of the HSE and isolation rooms for suspect cases, do the witnesses know how these are being dealt with and if isolation is being observed? The evidence is that it is not.

I refer to communal spaces in direct provision centres. Has anybody thought to come up with a rota system so people are not in the same room at the same time using washing and eating facilities? Maybe that is happening, but will somebody give me some information on that?

Approximately 800 applications to the asylum process last year were from people of African descent. A good deal of medical data is building up to say this group of people may be more at risk to the severe outcomes of Covid-19. Has the Department made any efforts to prioritise them and ensure they are first to be removed in the case of a outbreak?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

The Deputy's first question was around the training requirements for infection control. We have done quite a degree of training, supported by the HSE. In fact, a very useful webinar was done, which all centre managers were strongly encouraged to watch and participate in.

As we said to the committee, there is a telephone line, which we are paying for and is provided by a group called Safetynet, which both takes their queries around safety issues and health issues and proactively works with the centres to try to improve their safety. In addition the HSE sent an infection control nurse into the specific centre in Cahersiveen. The nurse went through a very detailed checklist of what could be done in terms of managing infection control, particularly in the context of an outbreak. That checklist, which was extremely helpful, was then promulgated to other centres as necessary to help them with infection control. It is worth bearing in mind that the people who run our centres are, in the main, hotel or accommodation managers, and they have never had to do this before. We are having to learn what they need to know and are providing it to them as best we can, over time.

With regard to translations and comments, we translate a lot for the residents as well so they know about the basic things, about cough etiquette and so on. These are the things that we have started to learn and practice by rote, although I noticed I coughed into my hand earlier which I probably should not have done.

Mr. Kirrane may wish to come in on the issue of processing.

Mr. Michael Kirrane

We have been looking at the processing of cases for the past number of months to see how we can speed that up. Our average processing before the pandemic was 15 months for a first-instance decision. We want to get that down to nine months, and indeed to get it below that. We have had our challenges with the pandemic because we cannot carry out face-to-face interviews as part of the process, which we must do as it is a legal requirement. We are looking at how we can get back and start that process as quickly as possible through the use of video-conferencing and a series of other measures.

In the longer term, the Catherine Day advisory group has been established. One of its terms of reference is specifically to look at how to further speed up processing cases and to look at best practice across Europe in relation to doing that. It is currently undertaking its work and is expected to report in the autumn. It is in all of our interest to speed up the processing of cases because by doing so, it would mean that people would be in the direct provision system for a shorter period, and those who are given a positive decision could get on with their lives and move out of the facility as quickly as possible.

Ms Oonagh Buckley

On the isolation rooms, off-site isolation rooms are supported by a section 39 agency that provides the necessary supports. That was done by arrangement with each of the CHO areas. With the on-site isolation rooms it is a little more difficult to say, but they are only ever a temporary solution while a person is waiting for a test result. If he or she is confirmed positive, or is in close contact with others, he or she is taken to one of the off-site self-isolation facilities.

There are rotas for all the shared rooms and facilities, and we strongly encourage centre management to put that in place, and continue to encourage them to do so. It is far and away the best way to manage this within what is a closely-confined setting where people have to share laundry facilities, eating areas, and so forth.

With regard to people of African descent, we have cocooned everybody identified to us as either in the first or second category of health vulnerability. Those were identified to us by the HSE. We have to go by what it tells us because we do not hold people's health information. We have not been given any additional advice around people of African descent, but obviously if that becomes part of the evolving knowledge the HSE passes onto us, we would do whatever it asked us to in that regard.

I thank Ms Buckley. I call Deputy Michael Collins for the Rural Independent Group.

People in direct provision centres in this country have been treated appallingly. This is something I have said before, and I say it again today. Our Government has failed these people, and the people of the communities in which people in direct provision live. As I said a few months ago, this is a box-ticking exercise by the Government. It was trying to show Europe and the world how it was willing to take people in under direct provision, but not telling the world what conditions these people would be living in. All too often we have seen ten beds in one room. Is this the norm for many in direct provision? In March approximately 110 people in several direct provision centres, including a number of children and heavily pregnant women, were given scant notice and ordered to move to Cahersiveen in County Kerry, without testing in advance, in order to avoid overcrowding and the development of Covid-19 clusters.

They were forced to leave the lives they had started in Ireland behind. On 18 March, there was an outbreak of the coronavirus in the centre. In mid-April, the development of a Covid-19 cluster ensued, resulting in 24 cases to date. Since mid-April, all remaining residents have undergone the ordeal of a 24-7 voluntary but strongly advised confinement in the 56-bedroom centre, with restricted access to its limited outdoor area. They have also endured 14-day isolation periods in their small bedrooms, sometimes in recently infected rooms, some sharing with strangers and others as entire families. Together, we are now presented with a horrible new dilemma which only the witnesses and their colleagues have the power to resolve.

Was there a testing strategy in place to test people who were moved from one direct provision centre to another? If there was such a strategy in place, what percentage of the people in direct provision were tested and moved only on the basis of a negative result?

Dr. Kevin Kelleher

To my knowledge, there was no such strategy. The moves were arranged by the Department of Justice and Equality. However, if we understood there to be an issue in a centre, the testing would then be developed as a consequence of what we knew about what was happening in the centre. As the committee heard, if a case or contacts were identified, they would be moved out of those centres as quickly as possible to separate isolation facilities. The testing depends on the circumstances, the conditions, the numbers, etc., in those centres.

Why was there no testing strategy? Will there be a testing strategy put in place going forward?

Dr. Kevin Kelleher

It is an important issue. We only have a very short period of time and this is likely to be a very long answer. The Deputy has to understand testing in these circumstances. The test we use only tells us that the person is positive or not detected at that moment in time. It does not mean the person is negative for the next week. The person could be tested the next day and be positive at that point. A test is not the answer. The answer is about how we take on board the whole process. We have given advice from the very beginning of this process around this area. Our first advice was put up on our HPSC website in early March. It was revised in April. It states very clearly how to deal with this issue, both in terms of trying to prevent it and when there are outbreaks. There is further advice on our website about dealing with outbreaks. The committee has heard some of those details. We have sought to put in, where necessary, additional staff like the infection protection control nurse, having a community worker on sites on a daily basis and things of that nature.

We seek to work with our colleagues in the Department of Justice and Equality to try to reduce the burden of people with Covid in these facilities as much as possible but it is difficult because of the circumstances. Along with them, we are trying to put in place systems that do that. They are basically the same things we ask everybody in the country to do. It is not that different at all. It is about good hygiene, good respiratory etiquette and social distancing.

Ms Oonagh Buckley

The Department of Justice and Equality would have an issue if the HSE sought uniquely to start testing asylum seekers when that was not required of other citizens in similar circumstances or other nationalities. We would have a very grave difficulty if asylum seekers were singled out for testing ahead of any other group in society. They are only tested when the HSE needs them to be tested. That has to remain the case.

I asked the same question today of the witness from Nursing Homes Ireland. I asked if there was testing in place when patients were moved from a nursing home or hospital to another nursing home. I am not singling out any sector. It is important when people are moving from one care provision facility to another, regardless of what it is, that Covid testing would be done.

With the potential for a further wave, what planning is under way to ensure people resident in direct provision centres will be permitted to follow clear social distancing guidelines?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

We are very conscious of the fact this is a very long-term situation. It is a marathon and not a sprint. We are starting to plan at this point for how we can ensure that we can maintain the lower level of density in our centres that we have achieved at this point. We are starting to plan the use of self-isolation facilities, how we use them and what we need to retain in that space.

That is particularly challenging because several of the hotels we are using have indicated they will return to commercial business when the economy reopens. Hotels will not be as readily available and, as such, we must plan very carefully around how we might do that. That is a specific issue within the broader challenge of trying to improve the quality of the accommodation we provide on a general basis. We are working very hard at so doing. We await the recommendations of the group headed by Catherine Day which are likely to come through in September and should set us on a track in respect of where we go more generally in providing appropriate accommodation options for people who come to Ireland and apply for international protection.

Have all healthcare workers been moved out of direct provision? If not, why not? They are vitally important.

Ms Buckley noted in her opening statement that the Jesuit Refugee Service, JRS, had launched a support service for residents of centres. How long has it been in place? How many calls has it received? How much feedback has the Department received on it? I know from experience that the Department will not accept complaints from anybody other than residents. In that light, why was that service introduced?

On testing and the HSE, the Department stated that there are approximately 8,700 residents in the asylum system. The HSE has tested 1,734 of them. Why have all residents not been tested? What is the difference between hostels for asylum seekers and nursing homes, where there has been blanket testing of all residents and staff? Why has that not been rolled out for asylum seekers?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

The Deputy’s first question regarded whether all healthcare workers have moved out. The short answer is that through our labour market access records we were able to identify 160 people who we thought were working in a care setting and might need solutions to be provided for them. We proactively tried to contact each of those healthcare workers. In fact, we asked a particular NGO to help us do so, which it readily did. Unfortunately, there was a relatively low take-up of the accommodation offers by the healthcare workers. Between 10% and 20% of them indicated a willingness to accept such an offer. There are many reasons for that, such as that they have family in the direct provision centre and do not wish to leave them or they are perfectly happy in the direct provision centre. Many people are quite happy where they are. The accommodation on offer from the employer or the HSE may not have been of the right kind or they were not happy with it. The choices open to us were to evict them from our centres or tell them they must give up their job in healthcare, neither or which we were willing to do. As such, all we can do is to continue to recommend to people that they take up the offer. We are continuing to do so, but it is not mandatory for people to take up the offer.

On the JRS support line, we got it up and running on Thursday. We had been working on it for a couple of weeks. In the first two days, we received 11 calls. Ten of those issues had been resolved by the time we got a report yesterday morning. The line is up and running and it is a very useful way for people who need to raise an issue, for whatever reason, to so do. We continue to ask people who have a problem to, please, tell us about it first because we can fix it. If they raise a problem about their centre, that information will never travel across into the International Protection Office. It will have no effect whatsoever on one’s application for asylum or permission to remain.

With respect, residents do not believe that.

Ms Oonagh Buckley

I acknowledge that people are frightened.

They wish to-----

Ms Oonagh Buckley

The JRS line is a way of trying to ensure they have a neutral place to go to raise concerns and we will happily deal with that. Many NGOs take these queries and refer them to us. We have received a few dozen NGO-related queries to our helplines recently.

Departmental officials have refused to take complaints when I have raised issues with them.

Ms Oonagh Buckley

I am surprised to hear that. If the Deputy wishes to raise anything specific, he can refer it directly to me. We are open to Deputies raising specific issues as well. We prefer to hear about them ourselves first because, as I said, that means we can try to do something proactively before a matter gets out on Twitter and all those other things that happen. On blanket testing, I will pass over to my colleagues.

Dr. Kevin Kelleher

I spoke about this earlier and we have clear evidence. We got positive results as a consequence of some testing we did when we learned of outbreaks in some centres. We actually performed that type of mass testing in nine or ten centres. No cases were identified when we screened all the residents. That coincided with the information we were getting from elsewhere from mass testing. Outside areas with known outbreaks, testing produced very few, if any, positive cases. We are now very clear, therefore, that mass testing is not the appropriate way to go. It is far better to look at this issue in the context of testing known cases and being very strict and quick with that. That is what we are doing now as a consequence and we always do it very rapidly. Our testing is down to the point where results are available and back in 36 to 48 hours, at the longest.

If a nursing home turned up negative following a test, would that be a signal for another test?

Dr. Kevin Kelleher

Throughout that process, when we moved into areas where there had been no cases, it showed very few, if any, cases whatsoever. Again, in the testing carried out in nine or ten direct provision centres, totally outside any hint of problems, none of them had a positive case.

The issue in congregated settings does not apply to asylum seekers but it does to residents of nursing homes.

I thank Deputy Pringle and the witnesses. We have to move on. I want to be fair to everyone. We move to the Fianna Fáil slot again. I call Deputy Donnelly, who has five minutes.

I thank our guests for their contributions. I will focus on the current level of provision and the safeguards in place. Regarding vulnerable people, I note from Ms Buckley’s opening statement that has been deemed to be those over 65 years old rather than 70. Taking those vulnerable to Covid-19, therefore, as those people over 65 and those with underlying conditions, what is the current state of play? Do all those people have their own rooms and all the necessary safeguards around them to protect themselves from contracting the virus?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

Yes. We were lucky, in one respect, that the number of those aged over 65 years is low, somewhere short of 70. A further three dozen or so people with high health vulnerabilities were identified to us in recent weeks by the HSE. We have put solutions in place for all those people. In some cases, those solutions do not involve them having their own space. In at least one case, two ladies I am aware of asked to stay together because they are friends. Several members of our older population are also part of family groups, want to stay with their family network and are in a household in that way. Appropriate solutions, that the HSE is okay with, have been found for all that population, but it is, thankfully, quite small.

That is good to hear. There was also a situation where people sharing rooms but not in the same family were deemed to be of the same household. They were asked not to interact with other households. In reality, however, there are shared bathrooms in some cases, as well as shared cooking facilities and communal areas. How is that being done in practice in light of the very tight spaces many of these men, women and children are living in?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

Many of the practical steps concern good hygiene control. It involves rostering people and having rotas in place. In many cases, food is being delivered directly to bedrooms. It involves putting in place a series of measures, depending on the individual capacity of the centre and the individual issues arising in that centre, needed to try to-----

I specifically ask about cooking. Ms Buckley mentioned rosters. For the rest of us in Ireland there is no question that families would share each other's space in kitchens once it was properly cleaned afterwards. Is it the case that families, households or groups in rooms have to use the same cooking facilities, although it might be at different times of the day?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

That would be the effect, as long as there is reasonable hygiene control. In some cases, however, the HSE has advised us and we have had to close the communal cooking facilities, which is of course a step backwards in the independent living of residents. We have had to go back to direct provision of food in the centres for that reason.

I thank Ms Buckley. The current public health advice for wearing masks is that people in indoor settings and reasonably close contact with others - in shops, for example - should consider wearing such masks. This does not necessarily mean medical masks but even cloth masks. Do the residents who want such masks have access to sufficient face coverings to comply with that public health advice in direct provision centres?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

We have a very large supply of masks available and we will not be found wanting if people look for masks from us. We effectively have a weekly delivery of PPE to every centre. I am not sure what the current advice is on the use of masks in congregated settings. I might have to call on a colleague from the HSE to give that information or perhaps we can get the advice to the Deputy.

I thank Ms Buckley for the response. The follow-up question is whether any resident who wants a mask can have one.

Ms Oonagh Buckley

We certainly have enough masks. We would have to go on the best advice available to us as to whether people should wear them in those circumstances. That is why I want to come back to the Deputy on the current state of play with regard to the advice. As he knows, there is great concern within the HSE that people would not use medical grade gear inappropriately, and there may be some circumstances, as I understand it, where it may cause problems.

I appreciate that but the residents in direct provision are in a unique position as they are in close proximity with other people not in their household in indoor settings. They have no choice about that. If it is not the case, the Department might look at this but I hope any resident who wants a mask would have access to one. My understanding of the current public health advice is that should be the case.

I ask about the children in direct provision. They no longer have access to school and they are living in impossible positions that I imagine will scar them very deeply for years to come. For the children who cannot go to school, have other educational supports been provided such as tutoring in centres, remote schooling or safe spaces where they can do their studies? Have any other psychological supports been provided for the children? I imagine many of them are very scared right now.

Mr. Mark Wilson

The responsibility for the provision of education rests with the schools and we have direct links with the Tusla education support service and the Department of Education and Skills in respect of the various categories on which we are focusing and where some support might be needed. For example, there were 32 children doing their leaving certificate this year and we had to give some definite thinking to how we would work with those at an earlier stage of the development of the pandemic. We also have children transitioning from sixth class to first year and we have a small number who came into our system but have yet to be linked with schools. Those particular children are targeted by relevant educational welfare officers and arrangements have been put in place to support them.

We have also been linking with colleagues in the Department of Rural and Community Development around library drops as a support for children. All centres are obliged to have Wi-Fi and all rooms have televisions, which can assist children in linking with programmes such as the RTÉ "Home School Hub".

Do they have access to laptops?

Mr. Mark Wilson

We did a survey through our call centre in the Department on the level of demand for additional tablets or laptops and we are not getting indications there is a high level of that demand.

We are in a position to respond to that if it is brought to our attention. Equally, there is a scheme, through the Department of Education and Skills, for that purpose.

I thank the Acting Chair for her indulgence. I happen to be homeschooling three children who are all at different levels in primary school. Between Aladdin, Seesaw, ClassDojo, Google Drive and email, it would be very difficult to do it without access to a PC or a laptop. Mr. Wilson might make sure that children who are in school are facilitated in terms of online learning because many schools are using it to teach children.

We move back to Sinn Féin. Deputy Carthy has ten minutes.

I thank the witnesses for attending and for their information. I recognise that this is an incredibly stressful time for all of them, particularly those who are working on these issues on a daily basis. I should put on the record my bias because I have monitored the situation with direct provision for a number of years and I am of the view that it is an abhorrent system which needs to be changed. It serves neither those who are seeking international protection nor the local communities in which they are often placed well.

I want to get some very quick background information. There are 84 locations in which people seeking international protection are currently housed. How many people in total currently live in those 84 centres?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

We have just short of 8,000 people technically accommodated, although I should note that many people have sourced their own accommodation during this time. Approximately 10% of our population have-----

Approximately 8,000 people. How many of them are in what the Department would call emergency accommodation? Ms Buckley stated that there are 33 emergency centres.

Ms Oonagh Buckley

I will have to get the exact number of those located in emergency accommodation for the Deputy. We will have to come back on that.

For context, how much has been paid so far this year to private companies in the context of housing those 8,000 people?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

Again, I will have to give the Deputy the exact figure. I have seen figures from a month or so ago. What I can say-----

How much was paid in the month of April?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

I will have to come back to the Deputy on the exact figure. I would not want to give him a figure that was incorrect. What I can tell him is that we are well ahead of our estimate in terms of spending at this point. We are likely to greatly exceed our estimate for direct provision this year.

As in overspending or underspending?

Ms Oonagh Buckley


Overspending. Okay. Dr. Kelleher can correct me if I am wrong but he indicated that there were 180 positive cases across ten centres housing people seeking international protection. Is that correct?

Dr. Kevin Kelleher

That was the figure for outbreaks. There would possibly be more individual cases, as the Deputy has heard, where people are not in overt direct provision centres. It would not be as easy to-----

Perhaps between the HSE and Department we could get an exact figure in respect of the 84 centres. Can the Department state how many deep cleans have been carried out in the 84 centres?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

I am not quite sure what the Deputy means by deep cleaning, but I am not aware of deep cleaning being a requirement of the advices we have been given to date in respect of those centres.

Okay. None is the answer. I refer to risk assessment, a matter Deputy Daly did not have time to discuss. Was a risk assessment carried out by the HSE or the Department prior to 16 or 18 March when residents were moved to Cahersiveen? Have risk assessments been carried out in all centres in respect of the Covid-19 outbreak and what it might mean?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

In terms of the very fast moving situation in the first two weeks of March, I do not think we could formally state that a risk assessment was carried out in terms of a piece of paper with a matrix and all of that.

However, we knew we had risks in the system and we had to act to address them. At the same time we were asking centres to follow a protocol. I might ask Mr. Wilson to come in here because we are working on a more elaborate risk framework which will allow us to put in more supports around various centres based on a model provided by the Mental Health Commission. Does Mr. Wilson want to come in on that?

Mr. Mark Wilson

Early on in the second week of March we asked centres to consider several issues that were pertinent to the developing problem, including their routines around cleaning and developing self-isolation capability at local level. That was followed up with a request for contingency planning to be put in place that allowed for feedback in respect of the individual centres.

In the next two weeks, in co-operation with our colleagues in the national social inclusion office, we will be undertaking a further assessment of each of the 85 centres or locations to be able to identify where particular locations may need assistance in strengthening arrangements. As Ms Buckley has said, this is being built on the Mental Health Commission model-----

I am sorry to cut across Mr. Wilson. Is it correct to say that the principle of the risk assessment is self-assessment by the management of each centre as opposed to an independent risk assessment being carried out by the HSE or another body?

Mr. Mark Wilson

We will pull together information that we have available to us plus self-reported information from the centre. We will be considering on-site follow up to that in addition to the information provided and gained.

Let us take, for example, the centre at Cahersiveen or any new centres or location that the Department of Justice and Equality is examining. Before anyone is moved to a centre, is there a process by which there is an assessment carried out with a view to Covid-19?

Mr. Mark Wilson

We have not moved people of late because of the requirement to keep people in their existing locations. We have a current conversation with our colleagues in social inclusion-----

Could the Department officials answer the question in respect of Cahersiveen? Before people were moved to Cahersiveen was a risk assessment carried out with a view specifically to Covid-19?

Mr. Mark Wilson

At that point in time that was not considered necessary or not asked of us.

I note that some 25 men from Cahersiveen - I could be wrong on the figure - were moved to Cork and then four were moved to other locations. Were tests carried out on the individuals moved prior to transfer?

Dr. Kevin Kelleher

I do not know. We would have to come back on that.

Mr. Mark Wilson

Those moved from Cahersiveen to Cork were moving to self-isolation facilities so they would be isolated for the period when they required intervention. Only on the basis of public health advice-----

Only people who had already tested positive were being moved. Is that correct?

Mr. Mark Wilson


Are other transfers taking place? I gather from Ms Buckley's earlier response that there are some limited transfers taking place. Is there a practice of tests being carried out before the transfers take place?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

I will come in on that. In general, the transfers taking place at the moment involve individuals who have tested positive. They have been moved to an isolation facility and have completed their period of isolation. Either they need to be transferred back to where they came from or transferred on to another centre. The other group of people who are moving into our system are the people who are still arriving and applying for international protection on a daily basis. We are working with our colleagues in the HSE to try to introduce an effective quarantine system for them for a couple of weeks. Then we need to move them on to other centres. The system is a live system. There are constantly people flowing into it and fewer people flowing out of it. We have to keep the system moving. We are in constant engagement with our colleagues, especially in the national social inclusion office, as to how we can continue to maintain the system safely.

Is there a practice of when people are moving from one place to another, especially if they are moving into a new centre, that they have either gone through a period of quarantine or been tested prior to being located in one of those centres?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

There is no practice of specifically testing asylum seekers unless it is required based on health reasons. As I said earlier, the Department of Justice and Equality would object most strongly to any suggestion that there should be a practice of randomly testing asylum seekers as a unique group compared with the rest of the population.

I want to clarify that I was not suggesting it would be random.

I am suggesting that if somebody is to move into a congregated setting, perhaps it should be examined whether he or she has been tested beforehand. I heard what Ms Buckley said about the Department's objections to asylum seekers being treated differently. I would argue that asylum seekers are being treated very differently in many respects. On that note, I wish to ask for specific numbers, starting with the number of residents currently sharing bedrooms with non-family members.

Ms Oonagh Buckley

There are approximately 1,700 persons sharing bedrooms.

How many non-family members share toilet facilities with one another?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

Substantially more persons.

Does Ms Buckley not have a number?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

In effect, one could say that anybody who is not in own-door accommodation, which is about a quarter of our population, is almost certainly sharing either cooking or toilet facilities.

Would the latter include shower and washing facilities?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

That is a requirement of our centres.

Does Ms Buckley get that there would be a problem there in the event of an outbreak of Covid-19?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

As I said in my opening statement, we know there are weaknesses in this system. We would like to improve it but we are trying to manage our system in the middle of a pandemic. We are trying to manage as best we can with a system that we know is not fit for purpose and needs to change.

I would argue that it needs to do more than change. It needs to be radically reformed because it is broken. Again, that is not a reflection on the people with whom Ms Buckley works, who are doing hard work under very difficult circumstances.

Ms Buckley referred a number of times to the Catherine Day report and the analysis that has been carried out. Can she tell me offhand whether that will examine a systemic review - in other words, looking towards moving away from the private sector towards public provision of housing for these very vulnerable people?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

That is the precise purpose of the group.

That answer will have to be furnished in writing because we are up against the clock.

I thank all the witnesses for coming in and all the people working in the direct provision centres and in their administration.

Ms Buckley referred to about 8,000 residents currently in direct provision. In how many cases are decisions on applications pending? Of those cases, how many judicial review procedures are in place? Can we have an idea of those figures?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

I will have to come back to the Deputy on the judicial review figures because our judicial review figures comprise things such as citizenship and EU treaty rights. They would not necessarily comprise people in the international protection process only. I have the figure for the number of people in the international protection process here somewhere, so if the Deputy wishes to ask his next question, I will have the figure identified before he-----

My next question is about people who have a particular medical problem such that they are required to attend hospital regularly for medical review. Is there a process in place for moving them to safer accommodation? If so, are there many people in respect of whom the Department has had to use that process in order to be sure? I raise this question because where the virus has been identified in a particular centre, these people will move back and forth from a hospital to the centre. What kind of numbers are we talking about there? Is there a process in place for dealing with that?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

We cocooned the people who were identified to us by the HSE as being vulnerable. If there is an outbreak in a centre, it is generally the case that the HSE tells us we cannot move anybody into that centre. That is the normal process in those circumstances, for obvious reasons. We certainly would not move medically vulnerable people into such conditions. I am not entirely sure I followed the other aspects of-----

If in a centre there are people with a particular medical condition other than coronavirus, is there a process in place for moving them into a safer location in order that they are not at risk, particularly given that they are likely to be attending hospital for medical review?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

My apologies, yes. In the normal course, if somebody is identified to us, particularly by his or her GP, as requiring specific provision, for example, access to hospitals, there is a standard process that we always use in those circumstances. In a normal year we have many people requiring special medical facilities. They might have HIV, for example. We make special provision for them in terms of accommodation.

As promised, I have found the figure the Deputy was looking for. At the end of April there were 5,694 applications for international protection on hand in the international protection office.

What kind of numbers are we talking about in the case of those with particular medical conditions outside of coronavirus?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

This question refers to people with specific vulnerabilities. We will have to come back to the Deputy. I will have to be careful about the information. Obviously it will have to be very generic, because obviously we cannot really-----

I fully accept that.

Ms Oonagh Buckley

The other point I need to make is that we do not hold individuals' health records. If we are asked to provide facilities for somebody, we certainly endeavour to do so. Perhaps the best thing I can come back to the Deputy with is we can let him know and give him the figure for how many people we have been asked to make special health provision for, say in the past year. That is not a problem.

In the case where a person is pregnant and is attending hospital clinics, what is the accommodation provision for such a person, in particular in a specific place where coronavirus has been identified?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

I will ask Mr. Wilson to talk about the issue relating to pregnant women. In the event of somebody giving birth, we had an instance of this in Cahersiveen, and they were not and would never have been returned to the centre in Cahersiveen. Provision was made for them at another centre in that community health area. Mr. Wilson will speak with regard to pregnant women and checks.

Mr. Mark Wilson

Health care in direct provision is provided through the primary care system. Residents are linked in with their GP. Where requirements are identified locally with the centre manager, the resident will look to resolve the problem. If it cannot be resolved at that level, it will come up to ourselves. We will link with our HSE colleagues to find a suitable solution to the problem that is presenting, be that pregnancy or any other health condition.

Ms Buckley referred to the case in Cahersiveen. My understanding is that that person was not moved, in fact, attended clinics for care and was returned to the centre.

Ms Oonagh Buckley

She was not moved prior to the baby being born, but once the baby was born, she was accommodated elsewhere in our network.

But she was attending a hospital from the centre.

Ms Oonagh Buckley

She was, indeed, because that is the care model that is provided to people in the system who are pregnant.

Looking to the future and having had to deal with that situation in Cahersiveen, does Ms Buckley think that a better plan can be put in place? On each occasion this person attended for maternity care, she went back down to the centre, and each time she went back, it was clearly identified that she was not positive. Is there a better way?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

We will certainly have to take that away and think about it. We will have to operate under health advice as well. The Deputy has to understand that there is countervailing piece, which is that once there is an outbreak in a centre, we are not supposed to move people from the centre. There is an issue about how we find a balance in such situations.

I accept that this is a very specific kind of situation that will arise. Do we now need to look at this from a long-term point of view, so that there is a plan in place to deal with it?

Dr. Kevin Kelleher

May I come in? The HSE is at the moment looking at how we will have to provide all our services into the future of this pandemic. It is one of our key tasks at the moment to see how we can provide services such as the Deputy is talking about - maternity services - which actually have carried on the whole time throughout this, as clearly they need to. We are looking to how we provide services such as these in a world where Covid-19 will exist. It may or may not be known if people have Covid-19, and therefore we have to provide the services in those ways. We are seeking to do this in many very innovative ways.

Increasingly, some of this will happen via telephone and video etc. to facilitate a lot of this and to ensure people are not being exposed, either when coming into our facilities or when they are already in our facilities. We are looking at that now and members will have heard our CEO and others talk about this in recent weeks. One of our key tasks is to see how we can provide all of our services in this period. The Deputy is talking about a specific issue, which we have carried on with throughout this period, and our maternity services have been very involved in looking at how they had to deal with these circumstances.

Does Deputy Burke mind ceding his last minute? I want to get the last speaker in and time is pressing. Would you mind?

You gave your colleague an extra two and a half minutes on top of the designated five minutes.

The answers are coming from a different room. It is difficult.

I know, but your colleague was given an extra two and a half minutes. I have a final question around the number of people who are still in centres even though asylum has been granted to them. This question may have been answered already but do we have a number for those people?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

It is just over 980.

Are efforts being made to move them out and to provide suitable alternative accommodation?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

Yes. Those efforts have continued throughout the pandemic and even during the lockdown. Eighty people moved out of our centres as part of that assisted process during the month of April, which was great. We need to do more of that and we are working strongly with two NGOs that helped that process. We have a co-located official from the local authority services and the Dublin Region Homeless Executive who helps us with housing assistance payment, HAP, applications and so on, and we are very keen for as many of those households as possible to move out of our centres as quickly as possible because that relieves a huge amount of pressure on us elsewhere.

The transcript of these three sessions today should be sent to all of the negotiators and leaders of the parties forming the next Government because we have heard about the failure of public policy in so many areas today. The officials present can account within that policy but this House has failed in the care of the elderly, the respect shown to them and the care they deserve at this time in their lives. We also failed with the disability sector and the section 39 organisations, which were mentioned earlier. We did not touch on those in depth at all. However, when I asked a question of the HSE about the funding for section 39 organisations, that question has still not been answered and those section 39 organisations that provide services in group settings and houses do not have the funding to meet today's public health requirements. I am being told that by a number of different organisations and we are letting them down in this House if we do not insist on getting the appropriate answers from the HSE and every other body that is associated with this.

On direct provision, what we are again experiencing is the failure of a policy that has been implemented by successive Governments for the past 20 years because we have deliberately ignored the most vulnerable in society. These people who come to our shores are vulnerable. For a long time, Members of this House have been highlighting in Second Stage debates of legislation the faults and failures in the care of the elderly, the disability sector and the direct provision facilities. The finger clearly points at us here.

I am not asking the witnesses to comment on the following issue that has arisen but they can do so if they want. So many different Departments and Government agencies that are involved in this deal with their business almost in silos. They do not connect with each other as successfully as they should. There is a clear effort being made by many concerned to deflect, obfuscate, ignore the double standards that exist and move on.

For example, in today's hearing the Chairman or Acting Chairman read out before every session that one shall not refer to an individual in such a way as to make her or him identifiable. Witnesses are asked to refrain from that.

Today, we heard the centres being named where Covid had been identified. That is in the direct provision setting but when it came to the care of the elderly the Department was asked not to do that. There are double standards that cannot be ignored and we have to deal with them. Ms Buckley, when the Department offers or awards a contract, what oversight kicks in from there on to ensure that the rights of the people in these settings are protected? We constantly refer to public health standards and advice but I think we should be guided about what we would want to do in the name of humanity and compassion rather than just tick a box. How does the Department oversee the contracts that are offered? Does the Department have inspectors? Does it report back? What does it do with breaches and so on?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

In normal times we aim to have three unannounced inspections of each of our centres and those go through the detail of what is required of the centres. Any flaws or faults that are found are immediately referred to the centre manager and asked to be addressed directly. There is a follow-up visit, if needed.

In terms of governance of the rights of the people, the Deputy will be aware that under the McMahon report of 2015 centre residents were given access to the Ombudsman and the Ombudsman for Children. The Ombudsman now conducts a very proactive campaign of visits to centres. Indeed, he published his report in the last few weeks. He deals very proactively with complaints that come in. As well as the capacity to complain to us which, as one of the Deputy's colleagues has already said, some people do not like to do there are many routes now to try to ensure that centres are effectively managed.

In the context of those who manage the centres, how many of those managers or holders of the contract got in touch with the Department or the HSE in the lead into the Covid-19 crisis to say "hang on a second, we cannot deal with this"? Did alarm bells ring for the Department? Were the centre managers central to those inquiries?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

Our alarm bells were ringing all right but they rang in our own heads. It was not that centre mangers were telling us they were going to have concerns.

Ms Oonagh Buckley

It was us saying to centre managers that we needed them to start planning for this. We had our first planning meeting for Covid-19 on 6 March and we have worked might and main 24-7 ever since to manage the situation. It was very much us proactively working with centre managers to get them to look at the situation that they needed. As the Deputy will have heard, we now have daily phone calls with them. We deal very proactively with their concerns and manage that through a specialised helpdesk that we put in place.

Did the managers come to the Department with their concerns arising with what they might have had to do, in terms of planning for Covid-19, or did the Department have to pursue them? Were they proactive on behalf of their residents in the centres that they owned and managed?

Ms Oonagh Buckley

There was a differing approach depending on the centre manager. It would probably have been us who first contacted all of the centres saying,

"we need you to start planning for this". The centre managers have responded differently, depending on their different capabilities. One of our key tasks now, applying a risk framework, is to look at those centres that need additional supports from us and to proactively offer them. Since we put in place the call centre and so forth, centre managers are actively encouraged to come to us or come to the safety net line with any concerns that they have, which they do. They ask us for PPE and things that they need or tell us about their concerns about, for example, people wanting to return to the centres. We have a very strong interaction with them now.

How many people did the Department move out of the centres to either isolate or because it was beyond the number that could be coped with in the context of Covid-19? How many people were moved out of the various centres and what was the extra cost involved?

I must wrap up the debate and suggest that Ms Buckley answers the final question in writing.

Ms Oonagh Buckley

That is no problem.

Ms Buckley may have the number.

Ms Oonagh Buckley

We moved more than 600 or 7% of our population to help with capacity thinning.

I thank all our witnesses for their attendance and for the information provided for today's meeting. Is it agreed to request the Clerk to seek any follow-up information and carry out any agreed actions arising from this meeting? Agreed.

The committee adjourned at 6.40 p.m. until 11 a.m. on Tuesday, 2 June 2020.