Covid-19: Impact on Sport in Ireland

I apologise to our witnesses for the slight delay but I thank them for bearing with us. From committee room 2, I welcome Mr. John Treacy, CEO and Mr. Paul McDermott, director of national governing bodies, NGBs, and high performance, both from Sport Ireland. On video link from the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht in Kerry, I welcome Mr. John Kelly, acting assistant secretary and Mr. Noel Sheahan, principal officer. I welcome Mr. Peter Hogan, principal officer from the Department of Culture Heritage and the Gaeltacht who is also in committee room 2.

Before we commence the formal proceedings, I advise the witnesses that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. This applies to witnesses who are physically present in the precincts of Leinster House. For those joining us by videolink, the matter is less clear because the extent of the privilege that is enjoyed has never been tested in court. In any event, if witnesses are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter, they must respect that direction. 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, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

All of the opening statements have been circulated in advance. I ask witnesses to limit their statements to five minutes. I invite Mr. Kelly to make his opening statement.

Mr. John Kelly

I thank the Chairman for the invitation to appear before the committee. I am the acting assistant secretary for tourism and sport in the Department and with me are my colleagues: Peter Hogan, head of sports policy; and Noel Sheahan, head of sports capital.

This year contained much promise for Irish sport. The Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games were drawing near. The 2019 Irish Sports Monitor showed that activity levels were increasing in line with the national sports policy. Sadly, as we all know, that did not come to pass and in mid-March, pitches and sports halls across the country began to fall silent. In response to the necessary public health restrictions, organised sport ceased entirely at the end of March.

The Roadmap for Reopening Society and Business was introduced, providing our plan for the summer and a welcome route back towards activity in sport. As part of sport’s plan for returning, the expert group on the return to sport was established, chaired by my colleague, Peter Hogan.

This group has met 17 times to date, and I express our sincere thanks to its members for their invaluable contributions to the development of guidance for sports, gyms and leisure centres. I also recognise the excellent work the sporting bodies have done to develop comprehensive protocols for the safe return to training and competition.

As soon as phase 1 began, organised sport started to return, with individual sports such as angling, golf and hill walking developing protocols to enable people to return to activity. The return of our elite and high-performance athletes to training at their national centres on 8 June was a significant step forward. With the acceleration of the roadmap and the combination of phases, all sports were permitted to start again on 29 June.

I know the committee heard from the three larger national governing bodies, NGBs, this morning, and the Department and Sport Ireland have been in regular contact with them and the other national governing bodies throughout the pandemic, as well as the Federation of Irish Sport. As members heard this morning, the suspension of activity had a major financial impact on sporting bodies and clubs. The Government has made additional funding to support the sport bodies. This will help sports to cover their losses and also adapt to the new reality we now find ourselves in. A funding package of €70 million was announced on 19 June, with further measures announced in the July stimulus. The closing date for applications for this funding was on Monday, and I understand Sport Ireland is working to allocate and disburse this funding next month. We are also consulting Sport Ireland and the sporting bodies as we look ahead to the 2021 Estimates.

Our sporting organisations have worked hard to adapt and deal with the new reality we find ourselves in. It has been a time of innovation. Sport Ireland has created online courses to educate coaches and organisers. As influencers, our top athletes have helped to reinforce public health messaging and have supported people to stay active at home.

The new living with Covid plan provides welcome clarity to sport for the next six to nine months. In level 2 of the plan, the following currently applies in respect of sporting activity. Spectators are permitted at sports matches and events, with up to 100 permitted at outdoor events and 50 at indoor events. These numbers are in addition to players, officials and others required to host the events. For larger outdoor sports grounds with a fixed spectator capacity of a minimum 5,000 spectators, up to 200 spectators are permitted. Sports training is permitted, with athletes and players training in pods of 15 outdoors or six indoors. Gyms, leisure centres and swimming pools are permitted to open, but must take appropriate steps to ensure social distancing. In Dublin, there is currently a further restriction on spectators at outdoor sports grounds with a fixed capacity of a minimum 5,000 spectators, where the limit on spectators is reduced to 100 people.

The return of some spectators is a very welcome development, but it is important to recognise that the risk of Covid-19 transmission remains. The expert group on return to sport is developing guidelines for sports clubs on how to safely manage spectators at matches and events at community sports facilities. As the committee heard earlier, the Department will be engaging with the field sports organisations to develop specific guidance for large sports stadiums, taking account of their size and the different conditions which apply for major sporting events.

We are confident that the resilience and recovery plan will enable sport to continue during the winter months for the benefit of public health and well-being. However, as we all know, the best way to facilitate this is to continue to adhere to the public health advice, namely, to maintain social distancing, practice appropriate hand hygiene and wear face coverings, where appropriate.

I will speak briefly about the supports the Department provides for the provision of sports facilities. As members will be aware, the sports capital programme is the primary vehicle for Government support for the development of sports facilities and the purchase of non-personal sports equipment. Applications are accepted from voluntary, sporting and community organisations, national governing bodies of sport and local authorities. Schools are also eligible once they apply jointly with a sports club.

Over 12,000 projects have benefited from sports capital funding since 1998, bringing the total allocations in that time to close to €1 billion. The programme has transformed the sporting landscape of Ireland, with improvements in the quality and quantity of sporting facilities in virtually every village, town and city. The most recent round of the sports capital programme in 2018 attracted a record 2,337 applications. Allocations were announced in January, May and November of last year, with a total of more than €56 million awarded to 1,648 different projects.

I ask Mr. Kelly to conclude.

Mr. John Kelly

I will skip to the end. It is important to recognise the important role sport and physical activity play, not only in our physical but also our mental health. The potential exists now for longer lasting behavioural change which could have an immensely positive impact on our health. Combined with the enjoyment of watching live sport, the impact this can make on our national well-being in its widest sense should not be underestimated.

I invite Mr. Treacy to make his opening statement. He has been hanging around for some time to address us and I thank him for doing so.

Mr. John Treacy

I thank the Chairman. It is a pleasure to be with the committee today. I am joined by my colleague, Paul McDermott, director of national governing bodies and high performance sport. My statement is a bit long. I will go through it, though not in detail. I will highlight some of the issues.

When the restrictions were put in place in March, Sport Ireland responded quickly to its role in terms of protecting public health and supporting the sport sector. Sport Ireland identified three areas of focus: making the case for the inclusion of sports in the Government's roadmap; creating an environment where high performance athletes could return to training as quickly as possible; and presenting a strong case to Government to ensure the financial stability of the sport sector during the pandemic. There was a high level of collaboration across the sector to achieve these objectives, specifically with the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, including our colleagues here today, the NGBs, the Federation of Irish Sport, Sport Northern Ireland with which we meet regularly, the Olympic federation and Paralympics Ireland. The €70 million Covid-19 funding package secured for the sport sector has been greatly appreciated and Sport Ireland wishes to acknowledge the Government's support in this regard.

Sport Ireland undertook an initial analysis to identify the potential short and medium-term challenge facing the sport in Ireland. This analysis showed that for the first three months of the crisis beginning in March the NGB sector would have the capacity and capability to manage a period of intense restrictions without significant issue. Four to six months would be a significant challenge for sports, especially those with a summer season. Beyond that, and into the winter season for indoor sports, the crisis presented a much broader sectoral challenge. NGBs with strong governance and financial structures are considered to be in a position to utilise both their reserves and reduced expenditure levels to address unforeseen costs arising for a period of time.

The Government support schemes introduced during the crisis have been essential to ensuring the continued operation of many organisations. Specifically, the wage subsidy scheme has allowed NGBs to retain staff during a period of great uncertainty.

The development of the Government's Roadmap for Reopening Society and Business offered a pathway for sport to return in a controlled and phased manner, with the acceleration of the roadmap presenting a more positive outlook. Notwithstanding the financial challenges associated with the restrictions through loss of gate receipts, membership income and commercial activity, the primary challenge for NGBs is the uncertainty associated with planning for the future, particularly the planning of competitions and events. We are particularly mindful of the challenges facing sports that are primarily indoor-based and most active during the winter period.

The establishment of the return to sport expert group arose from specific concerns within the sport sector regarding the chain of approval of their return to sport protocols. The group, chaired by the Department's Peter Hogan, has done an excellent job in providing guidance and approval to the sector as it moves through the roadmap.

The return of our high performance athletes to training bases around the country was hugely significant. We were delighted that they were able to go back on track again. The postponement of the Tokyo Olympic Games was obviously a setback but Sport Ireland moved quickly to reassure the athletes that their funding would be maintained and would run into 2021.

A positive to emerge from the Covid-19 crisis is the innovation of our NGBs, partnerships, clubs and groups. Since the onset of the restrictions in March, sporting organisations have shown great adaptability to support their memberships and communities. In particular, social media and other online platforms have been used to great effect to continue to provide fun, engaging and regular advice, classes and challenges to people of all ages.

The importance of maintaining physical and mental well-being has been evident in all facets of society during the crisis, especially during the lockdown stage. Sporting organisations came to the fore in that. We conducted research on that as well. There were significant increases in sport and physical activity, with the rate of sporting activity jumping from 43% up to 51%, with participation in exercise, running and cycling jumping significantly. The other good news was there was a significant decline in the proportion of people described as sedentary during that period. There was also a big jump in the number walking, with a 18% increase. We got to the highest level ever recorded of 83%, which is equivalent to 3 million regular walkers.

Throughout the crisis, Sport Ireland has continued to support the sector and we have rolled out a number of programmes that have supported the sector through this. Whether it is a large NGB, a small NGB or a local sports partnership, all of these programmes are being rolled out. There was Covid compliance officer training, Covid awareness courses which we ran for NGBs, local sports partnerships, clubs and communities, and we continue to roll out guidelines and infographics which explain the various phases of the roadmap.

In June of this year, the Government announced funding of €70 million. The purpose of the funding is to protect the national sports system and to invest in people and sports programmes which will play a major role in the long-term public health response to Covid-19. The funding is made up of four separate streams: funding of up to €40 million for the three main field sports, which were before the committee this morning; a resilience fund of up to €10 million to support the national governing bodies of sport; a sports club resilience fund of up to €15 million to support clubs; and a sports restart and renewal fund of up to €5 million. The closing date for that programme was last Monday, 14 September, and 39 of the 60 NGBs have applied for funding. We will be working through those applications, we expect to have decisions made during the month of October and an announcement will probably be made at the end of October.

Looking forward to 2021, Sport Ireland anticipates further challenges ahead for the sports sector. However, the resilience shown to date gives Sport Ireland confidence that through our continued collaboration with all partners, we will see a full return to sport by a thriving sector in due course.

I thank the witnesses. It is important that we give our full support to all the sporting organisations across the country because we have so many volunteers, players and spectators who have been greatly affected by this. All of us see the value of the work done through all our sporting organisations and we have to applaud them and say “Well done” because these have been very challenging times.

My first question is to the Department. Before Covid-19, many clubs and sporting organisations around the country were struggling. How can we ensure adequate funding and sustainable multi-annual funding arrangements for the sector at this time of uncertainty? We will be providing additional Covid-19 support, for example, building on the stability fund for charities so that smaller clubs can deal with the projected €445 million collapse of fundraising income which will not be made good by the wage subsidy scheme or its successors. Will the Department comment?

Mr. John Kelly

Our main response on Covid has been the €70 million outlined earlier, a large part of which is going to governing bodies and another portion going to clubs. That is to address the short-term and medium-term issues. We think the best way to do that is through the governing bodies.

The Deputy has raised a very tricky challenge for the future in terms of charities and how Covid-19 has impacted fundraising. What happened in June was a point in time and we are aware we are going to have to revisit this.

Charities and fundraising have been a huge part of communities in rural Ireland. Even as matters stood, clubs were struggling, so this is important. We spoke about the €70 million earlier. We need to see small GAA clubs and other clubs in small rural villages get the support that is urgently needed. Will we be resourcing local sports partnerships to ensure they can support local clubs to encourage people back to sport?

Mr. John Kelly

I might ask Mr. Treacy to take that question.

Mr. John Treacy

I am glad to hear the Deputy talk about the charitable sector. As chair of Concern Worldwide, I am very keen that people continue to give to charities around the country that are doing great work. That is to be encouraged.

As for funding, the LSPs have done tremendous work during recent months, as they always do, and have reached out to local communities, trying to keep people as active as possible and giving them the resources to do so. We have invested heavily in the LSPs and will continue to do so. We have increased their budget in recent times by providing funding for development officers and disability officers. We have dormant account funding as well that we have given them, amounting to €7 million this year. Those resources have been increasing. That is a partnership with the local authorities, and they invest as well. Participation is highlighted in the national policy on sports, and the LSPs are one of the main vehicles in increasing participation. They will be resourced by Sport Ireland going forward.

I have one other short question. We have wonderful community swimming pools around the country. Children's swimming lessons are currently postponed. This is a vital part of the school curriculum. What is being done to support a return to healthy sports such as swimming for our young people? Community pools such as mine in Carlow have been a great outlet for those wishing to ease back into exercise. Swimming has been called the perfect exercise. It is just a concern I have. Perhaps the witnesses could come back to me on it. With community pools, as they themselves know, again, fundraising has been a major issue. Schools from around the county, including my area, used to attend the pool in Carlow and now they cannot. Will there be a certain criterion such that pools will get special funding? They play such a significant part in our community.

Mr. John Kelly

In July, in recognition of the challenges pools face, a special fund was announced essentially to help them reopen. Reopening was very costly for a lot of them. The Deputy will see that, according the recent roadmap, if schools can do social distancing safely, they can have more people in, which will help them with the bottom line. That is what we have done to help them out. It is very challenging, though, and we are very aware of that. I will ask Mr. Hogan to come in from the expert group's perspective on what it has done in this area.

Mr. Peter Hogan

We have been working through Sport Ireland with the relevant associations and the operators of the swimming pools in the sport of swimming. We have ongoing contact with Swim Ireland and Ireland Active and are working very closely with them. Both organisations have done great work in developing protocols for the safe return to swimming and to activity in the pools generally. We are optimistic now that things will go in the right direction. We have a little more certainty now with the roadmap for operators. There was a little uncertainty previously as to when they would be allowed to open and how they would open. We will work forward with them in a positive way. Swimming will be really important through the winter months. We hope to see the lessons and the activity clubs returning and going very well over the coming months.

I welcome the two bodies. Could the witnesses clarify if the Department has sought specific EU funding to assist sporting organisations? There has been a lot of liaison with larger sporting bodies. Has the same focus and assistance been given to minority sporting organisations? Furthermore, in terms of opening up again and going back in some cases, judging from what is coming across my desk and, I presume, other Members' desks, there seems to be a lack of clarity surrounding gyms, yoga classes and small exercise classes. Is it possible to get some clarity on those?

Mr. John Kelly

I will come in on the smaller sports. We have engagement with them, as does Sport Ireland, and the €70 million is open to all sports. The Minister had a Covid sports monitoring group, which opened to a wide range of NGBs.

We will have a meeting again next week and we met them recently as part of the roadmap consultation.

As for dance and exercise classes, following public health advice, under level 2 at least, pods of six are allowed and that is how they can proceed.

On EU funding, I might ask Mr. Hogan to comment.

Mr. Peter Hogan

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis, we have been in ongoing dialogue with the European Commission and our EU partners. The flexibility of the EU system to enable people to continue sharing information and to feed back on the issues faced within the member states has been really positive. It is a sensitive period at the moment in the EU context in regard to looking ahead to funding and funding programmes, but I can assure the Deputy that sport is certainly being recognised, with a new work programme for sport being taken forward by the Commission. While nothing has been settled at this stage, the meetings are ongoing in that regard. There is a recognition that Covid presents a further challenge to the sports sector throughout the Union.

Mr. John Treacy

I might add there has been extensive dialogue between Sport Ireland and the national governing bodies. By and large, if any of the smaller NGBs has a smaller question, it will get on to Mr. McDermott's team. Questions relating to guidance through the roadmap are answered and a great deal of support is given to them, such as through the programmes I mentioned earlier. A total of €10 million has been allocated for the sector to see it through the end of 2020, which will be a significant resource as the sector goes forward. Mr. McDermott might like to comment on that.

Mr. Paul McDermott

We are available at all times and are in daily dialogue with the governing body sector, which ranges from the large organisations such as those appearing before the committee to some smaller, volunteer-led organisations. They all have open access to us, the services and the programmes, and have applied for the funding on their own behalf and on behalf of their clubs. They draw down all the services on an equal basis. Our colleagues are available to them daily and the general response from the wider sports sector has been very positive.

There are more than 20 stadiums in various parts of Ireland with a safe capacity of more than 15,000 spectators. There is clearly room for a case-by-case approach and I understand that the plan is to assess such large venues. Is this something that is being undertaken? Is an assessment expected and, if so, when is it expected to be completed?

Mr. John Kelly

As the Deputy will have heard earlier, we are sitting down with the larger NGBs, which control most of the club stadiums, to try to start to work that out. There is a bit of work to be done. While there is some flexibility in the roadmap, there are a number of challenges. It is not just about how large the stadium is. It is also to do with the entrance, the exit and the congregation before and after the match, while taking account of social distancing. That work is starting but it is going to take a bit of time.

When Mr. Kelly refers to "a bit of time", does he have a ballpark figure? When would he like to have it finished?

Mr. John Kelly

I do not want to make predictions because I am not sure, given that the work is only starting. Mr. Hogan might have a bit more information because he sat in on the first meeting of the group, which was held only yesterday.

Mr. Peter Hogan

As Mr. Kelly outlined, the group met for the first time yesterday. I assure the committee we recognise that it is a pressing matter and that it is important for the sporting bodies concerned, the wider sports sector and society in general to see a return to spectating in a safe way. We want to continue, as we have done throughout this process of return, to be safe and to do things in the correct way. We will certainly move forward as quickly as possible. As Mr. Kelly stated, there is a bit of work to be done, but there is great energy in the sector and people have been collaborating well, which will continue in this process. We want to see people working together to identify suggestions, proposals and ways to address the challenges Mr. Kelly outlined. We will then bring that to the public health team at the earliest opportunity so that, as soon as possible, we can start to see a return to safe spectating at some of the larger venues the Deputy referred to.

This morning, John Horan of the GAA indicated that he felt that greater responsibility was given to the GAA in the Six Counties. I hope I am correct in saying that. Would the Department consider giving more decision-making responsibility to the GAA and other large sporting organisations? The evidence indicates that there have been no occurrences of Covid at GAA matches, for example. Would the Department be willing to give more responsibility to the GAA to ensure that more spectators can attend matches?

Mr. John Kelly

The GAA and the other NGBs have done an excellent job to date. We have no issues with them and how well they are doing but we have to work within the broader roadmap and public health advice. As Mr. Hogan said, we have a very good relationship with health officials, including taking things to them if they will work. That is what this group will do.

In terms of what is happening in the North, we have very regular dialogue with them and we are watching very closely what they are doing, as we are watching other test events across the Continent. We are hoping to learn from what goes on there.

Mr. John Treacy

It is worth mentioning that some of the governing bodies are international bodies and so they already have a great deal of information on opening up stadiums and that will move things on in terms of timing. There is a lot of collaboration between the three main field sports. As evidenced this morning, they are working together on this. It is better that everyone moves at the same time. The information is there. This can move on quickly. We meet regularly with Sport Northern Ireland. We are keeping the dialogue open. We are trying to take an all-Ireland approach as best we can, even though we are different jurisdictions in this case.

I thank the witnesses. Earlier, we heard from the three organisations that they are all squeezed financially. Has Sport Ireland reduced its overheads and, if so, what does that look like?

Mr. John Treacy

We are trying to keep our business going in terms of the job that we do. We have a large body of work to roll out with the €70 million. We have not let go of any of the staff of Sport Ireland and it is not our intention to do so because the body of work has increased. As was stated earlier, every call from an NGB is answered, and on the same day. That is the level of contact that we have with the sector.

All of our business continues. We have to plan for Tokyo in terms of our high performance programmes and high performance team. Our anti-doping remains operational, as is our child protection and ethics work. Our participation work has never been more important. We need to continue to encourage and to have in place programmes that keep people active. This work needs to continue. We found out during the lockdown that it was more important than ever. We got many programmes out through social media at that time. Our local sports partnerships, which we also fund, did that work. The workload has increased this year, even though most of our staff are working remotely and there is only a few of us on campus. That work has continued. It is not our intention to slim down the organisation at this time. As I said, the workload has increased.

The next speaking slot is being shared by Deputies Durkan and O'Dowd.

I welcome the witnesses. During Mr. Delaney 's time with the FAI, we had some interesting times talking about sport, soccer and so on. My question is for Mr. Treacy and relates to governance in all of the sporting organisations.

Without picking out any one organisation, is he satisfied that there is appropriate and proper governance for the money he is spending? Turning to the FAI and the governance review of the 78 recommendations, is Mr. Treacy satisfied that all those have now been met?

Mr. John Treacy

Governance is always very much on our minds regarding sports organisations. We had a session on governance with chairs and chief executives on Wednesday, which we led in conjunction with the Institute of Public Administration, IPA. We are rolling out a governance programme at level 9 with the IPA and 58 people have registered for that course. I am pleased to say that females outnumber males on the programme. We are delighted to highlight that aspect of the programme. We will also undertake a governance endeavour with all the bodies at the end of November, where we will take findings from our audits during the year and highlight them so that all the sporting organisations can be aware of them. We also pick a theme for the night.

This governance work is ongoing in the whole governing body sector. All those bodies are on a journey with regard to the community and voluntary code. We have taken over the code, which is now a sports code. We have someone who will drive that within Sport Ireland in providing supports for the various organisations and dealing with any queries they may have. We also work with the Carmichael Centre and use its expertise in certain aspects of what we do.

A great deal of work was done on the FAI in recent months and that has continued. The pandemic has not stopped that work. We have a memorandum of understanding, the IPA report, which we are working through, and the KOSI report recommendations. We have set up a governance oversight group with the FAI. There is also a financial oversight group chaired by members of Sport Ireland. That work has continued. The FAI is back on track. All the recommendations the organisation was supposed to implement by this stage have been implemented and are up to date, and funding has been restored.

I thank Mr. Treacy. My second question is probably better directed to the Department. The budgetary commitment to be made next year is for the Department to determine. The important fact we must consider is that we do not know how this pandemic will play out. Sports organisations may experience greater difficulty or fewer problems, depending on how far we can go in resolving issues with medical care and a vaccine. How is it proposed that that issue be managed? The Department is stuck with a deadline for a budget. How will it deal with that? That is a generic question.

Mr. John Kelly

There is no way around this issue. It is an extremely challenging situation, not only in sport but across the public services. We do not know the path of the virus and how it is going to impact, which makes things very difficult. The Government stepped up in June and we intend, as part of the Estimates process, to speak to representatives of all the NGBs to get their best current estimate and a prediction of what their needs will be next year. As I said, the budget will be challenging for a number of Departments, but we will do the best that we can for the moment.

That is the nub of the issue. Let us suppose that €70 million is available again next year. We do not want to create unrealistic expectations that cannot be met regarding the amount of funding will be available. I am just commenting on that as a difficulty that may arise for the Department. I am satisfied that Sport Ireland and the Department are giving this the best shot they can, as are the sports organisations.

I thank all our witnesses for joining us this afternoon. I am sure they are familiar with the earlier contributions from the three large sporting organisations, namely, the IRFU, the GAA and the FAI.

Some of my questions will be based on the information garnered from them. Mr. Kelly mentioned the LSPs, the very important role they play and the €7 million that was allocated to them this year. I refer to the issue of mental health and general well-being, particularly in light of the pandemic and the issues people have faced with the restrictions. In my constituency of Dún Laoghaire, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council has come up with pretty creative and imaginative ways of hosting events that are set pieces in the calendar. An example of that is the community walk, which is now going to be done over a week, and people will do that in their own smaller local parks where possible. There are also cycling and other initiatives to keep people active, which is very welcome. The funding the Department supplies is critical to these partnerships and other organisations, including sporting ones, which Mr. Treacy touched on with reference to charity events. All of these things are being done in a different way due to the circumstances that faces us.

In his opening statement, Mr. Kelly referenced the sports capital programme and €19 million having been paid out so far this year. A full review of that programme in 2018 is being conducted and it is due to report shortly. When is that going to be published? Equally, the sports capital programme is going to reopen later this year. Does Mr. Kelly have a timeframe for that? As he will appreciate, many sports clubs, which may be watching this afternoon, will be very keen to know when that round of funding is opening. I read in Mr. Kelly's opening statement that due diligence and appraisals are under way as well on the LSSIF. Given the financial pressures Covid has put on clubs and organisations that may have applied for that fund, what happens if that money is not drawn down? I ask because he said that there are no plans in the short term to reopen that fund.

Mr. John Kelly

The plan is to publish the fourth capital review soon, I hope. It is subject to clearance and approval by the Ministers. As I said in my opening statement, we are hoping to do the next round of the sports capital programme later in the year but I do not have a date for it. On the LSSIF, my colleague, Mr. Sheahan, who is heading up sports capital, will reply on that.

Mr. Noel Sheahan

Returning briefly to the review and next round of the sports capital programme, the review is our own exercise to look back on elements of the programme that worked well or other issues we could improve upon. From the official point of view, we have finalised our work on it and have done a submission to our new Ministers. The reason we do that is that once it is signed off on finally, it will form the basis of the terms and conditions of the new round of the programme. The transfer of functions only happened earlier this week so we are now in our new Department. We are very hopeful we will get sign-off in the next week or two. We are currently testing our IT systems and so on in the new Department. As Deputies will be aware, the sports capital programme generates a huge volume of traffic to ourselves with several thousand applications each time and, therefore, we need to ensure all of our IT systems are in place before we actually open it. I am confident that we will be in a position to open it up some time in October.

We announced 32 grants under the LSSIF in January. It was always the intention that all of those projects would have to go through a due diligence process and we are fairly advanced on that. We are engaging with our legal advisers, which is the Chief State Solicitor's office, on finalising the actual grant agreements but again, it is more or less there. With the sports capital and the large scale programmes, we have always been flexible about the grants we announce and any delays or particular issues that may result in delays to the drawdown of funding.

At an early stage of this crisis, we engaged directly with the national governing bodies which appeared before the committee this morning to get updates on where they were in terms of some of the larger products under the LSSIF.

It is a rolling fund and we have amounts allocated for this year and next. If needs be, we will carry forward that funding. There is no issue currently in terms of funds being withdrawn and so on. As with any other large capital spend, we will conduct our own internal reviews - those will happen some time early next year - to see how projects are progressing, engage with the NGBs and local authorities, and determine whether we need to reprioritise.

I thank Mr. Sheahan. That will be reassuring for those clubs and organisations that have been granted funding but whose circumstances have also changed.

In the time remaining, I might ask Mr. Treacy a question focusing on elite athletes. He mentioned Tokyo. There are other events coming down the track for many sports as well. What supports have been put in place since the initial Covid outbreak in Ireland for elite athletes? Some might not have the necessary training capabilities in their immediate environs. When the travel restrictions and so forth were lifted, what supports were put in place vis-à-vis travel and accommodation for people who had critical deadlines in their professional careers?

Mr. John Treacy

The Deputy remarked on local sport partnerships. Through dormant accounts funding, we provide the LSPs an additional €6 million in core funding. I welcome the Deputy's support for them.

Regarding elite athletes, a major issue was getting them back into facilities and training in groups. In addition, we safeguarded our funding to sports. We asked all of the NGBs not to spend high-performance sport funding and to ensure that they held onto it for next year. The Olympic Games were beckoning and training camps and so forth would continue once various countries opened up. As such, we wanted to safeguard that funding. The institute opened up and our elite athletes could once again use it and avail of its services. During the lockdown, our service providers provided services to our athletes, for example, remote guidance on strength, conditioning and other aspects. They were available online all the time to talk to athletes.

I will now pass to Mr. McDermott, who is in charge of high performance. He will elaborate further for the committee.

Mr. Paul McDermott

The first action was to guarantee funding for all of the athletes on the international carding scheme through to 2021 and up to the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games. That was an essential if we were to give them stability and the confidence that we would support them all the way up to the games. The initial phase of lockdown was difficult, but the Sport Ireland Institute remained open and operational, albeit at a virtual level. Services were provided virtually, with service providers continuing to engage with athletes and their coaches and supports. The institute reopened safely, but at the earliest opportunity. A number of athletes now use the facilities on the Sport Ireland campus on a regular basis, including the institute.

We work daily and weekly with the performance directors of the sports to ensure that their programmes are on track and their funding is secured. We give them as much clarity and security as we can to ensure that all of the athletes who are aiming for European, world, Olympic and Paralympic championships are provided for.

It is important that we acknowledge our excellent working relationship with the Olympic Federation of Ireland and Paralympics Ireland. Through a collaborative effort between the Sport Ireland Institute and the governing bodies, individual athletes have a large suite of supports available to them. I believe that 45 places in Tokyo have already been qualified for, as have a number on the Paralympics side.

The Deputy rightly acknowledges that the immediate locations of some athletes who are living away from the campus are not ideal. Notwithstanding that and other difficulties, every effort is being made.

I wish to acknowledge that, in all the Government’s roadmaps and various interventions around Covid-19, the needs of elite athletes have been recognised and, notwithstanding everything that is going on, we have seen some excellent performances at the European Under-23 Rowing Championships. The Ireland cricket team played England and won one of the matches. Where our athletes have been able to compete, they have done well. Notwithstanding the difficulties and various challenges that we are facing, the supports are there. All of our colleagues in the Sport Ireland Institute continue to provide supports. We pay tribute to the athletes and their coaches who have shown great resilience and determination and continue to train. When they have been given the opportunity to perform in limited circumstances, they have done so to an exceptionally high standard. We are doing well, generally speaking.

I thank all our guests for their contributions. I come from a sporting background and place an emphasis on the importance of sport and fitness to the well-being of people. During the earlier session, I outlined to representatives of the GAA, soccer and rugby bodies my views on the importance of sports and fitness, especially during these current challenging times. There is no doubt that, during the lockdown, people's mental health and well-being were helped by their daily fitness regimes. It was great to see a big increase in the number of people who got involved in fitness and sport and returned to a daily fitness programme. The question we must ask ourselves is what would have happened if these people did not have this opportunity.

It is clear to see the benefit that everybody gets from increased participation in sports and fitness. During the past six months, I have seen the increase in the number of people out walking about in my home town of Dundalk. We have an opportunity to build on this and regular exercise should be actively encouraged. It must be taught at an early age that exercise is not just a hobby but a vital part of healthy living. It must start in primary schools and children should be given every opportunity and encouragement to take part in sporting activities. For that to happen, we must provide better facilities. Much has been done in recent times but it is still not enough. We must invest in greenways and make use of all areas where safe walking facilities can be utilised.

I have been actively pushing for a walkway from the seaside village of Blackrock into Dundalk. I am pleased to see that some progress has been made on this and look forward to seeing it completed. Not only will it facilitate and provide a safe route for walkers and runners, it will provide an opportunity for the tourist industry in the region. I hope that we can eventually develop a greenway from Dundalk to Carlingford. With those things in place, I firmly believe that the area will become a magnet for tourists to visit and provide a safe and enjoyable route for walkers, runners and cyclists.

As I said earlier, many clubs throughout County Louth provided invaluable support to their local communities during the lockdown period. Without that support, I fear that many in the community would have been in a very bad place. It is now time that we repaid that great community service. Many of the clubs are calling out for support to develop their facilities. I should point out to the committee that I am chairman of the Louth county board and, as such, have an interest in the fight for clubs to access more funding from the Department. It is now time for the Government to provide this much needed support to sporting clubs that gave so much when it was needed most during the lockdown. The Government must provide the necessary funding that clubs now require as a matter of urgency. In fairness to the Government, it has stepped up to the plate when it comes to supporting businesses and the health service during the pandemic but we must recognise the important role that local clubs have played, and continue to play, in communities during these extraordinary times. Clubs need our support to continue to provide this much needed service to local communities. I would welcome the view of the Department on this matter and if they could outline any plans it has to support grassroots clubs of the GAA, soccer and rugby.

A minor point I would like to raise is the fact that there is no dedicated section for sport on the Department's website. It has been raised by many people in the sporting sector that it seems that sport is not being given the attention it should be. The fact that it is not even recognised on a Government website is alarming. What plans are in place to rectify this?

I want to put on record that not enough funding is available for sport and fitness in Ireland. We must recognise this and act on it. We all know that if one partakes of regular exercise, not only will one's physical health improve but also one's mental health. We must help people to realise this and support them. Supporting them means having the right facilities in place so they can have a walk, run or even a cycle on a regular basis.

We must invest in greenways such as the one I mentioned from Dundalk to Blackrock. We must make it safer to go out and to exercise with better facilities. Clubs are only too willing to open up their facilities to walkers and runners but we must help them more by providing the funding necessary to improve their facilities, whether it is for improved lighting or track facilities. We cannot regard this as an expense or a drain on the budget. This is an investment in the physical and mental well-being of people, which, in turn, will lead to a lowering of the cost of maintaining our health system as people become more healthy. We have an opportunity and we must grasp it. Let us not be found wanting. This country and its people have been through enough during the past six months. There is now an opportunity to put in place long-term measures that will ultimately give us long-term positive results.

What would happen if people did not have the opportunity to participate in sport? The Government must provide necessary funding for clubs as a matter of urgency. They are the heart and soul of their communities. They need money and they are broke. These are the ones who were out helping people throughout the pandemic. Let us make sure that the money goes to the right people. The Government and Sport Ireland representatives are the ones who distribute the money. It is important that the grassroots receive it. Can the witnesses answer those two questions, please?

Mr. John Kelly

On the €70 million, which has a very large clubs element, I will ask Mr. Treacy to address the question. Then I can pick up the other issue.

Mr. John Treacy

The Government provided €15 million that is to be allocated to clubs around the country as part of the resilience fund. The funding will be allocated through the governing bodies of sport, which will apply for their clubs as they are in regular contact with them. It is very welcome. It is current funding that the clubs can invest, keeping in mind the protocols they need to put in place. The funding is vital to them.

As the Deputy stated, the clubs are doing Trojan work. During the pandemic, their members were out helping the elderly and always going the extra step. They are the life and soul of every community. We were delighted that the Government stepped up and provided €15 million to the clubs. The clubs are supported by the national governing bodies and also by the local sports partnerships, which are in contact with them regularly and supporting them on the ground on an ongoing basis. Any guidance and training the clubs require is provided through their national governing body or the local sports partnership. This needs to continue, obviously.

I agree with the Deputy on the importance of sport and physical activity for people's health and well-being. If people are healthy, active and engage in outdoor activity, they have a better chance of fighting a pandemic. To that effect, we will be launching a policy on outdoor activity in the next week. It promotes being active and outdoor sports. Clubs are involved in that at local level. We need to promote this. It is about utilising greenways, walkways and blueways or anything that will encourage people to go out and participate in sport.

The important point is that there is a sport for everyone. One does not need to be able to kick a football. If one cannot do so, there is another sport. It might be in a boat or in a boxing ring. There is something for everyone. We encourage everyone, irrespective of their abilities or disabilities, to participate. An important point is that it is never too late to start. This really came through during the pandemic. Everybody was out walking again. They were utilising the forests around the country, which is really to be encouraged. They were bringing their children to the forests and allowing them to experience physical activity, such as walking, and nature at the same time. Important work was done on this. We strongly encourage people to adopt physical activity into their way of life and continue with it into the winter months.

Mr. Paul McDermott

Of the €70 million, there is a specific strand involving €15 million for clubs, to be allocated through the governing bodies and so on, but we also encouraged the local sports partnerships to run grant schemes locally.

They may have access to smaller clubs or community groups that would not necessarily have a strong relationship with national bodies. There was very strong take-up of that scheme as well. That would be covered. I want to give people confidence that every effort is being made to get right into communities and into every strand of Irish sport through governing bodies and local sports partnerships. Every effort was made to make sure that all clubs, large or small, knew there was a scheme available to them. We are encouraged by signs from the sports partnerships that there has been strong pick-up and good coverage. It will take a few weeks to validate all of the applications but in reviewing the information we have got in the last few days we have seen that both governing bodies and sports partnerships have done a good job in connecting with their club networks to ensure applications are forthcoming.

Like other speakers, I compliment our witnesses for the work they have done and are doing in promoting sport in general, particularly at a time of crisis such as that we are going through. I have just a couple of questions, which have also been referred to by previous speakers.

In respect of the major capital grants programme, some grants have been awarded and, in the case of swimming pools, some are yet to be awarded. Are the witnesses satisfied that any glitches that have occurred whereby local contributions were slow in coming in as a result of the impact of the virus will not result in any applicants falling through the net? Are the witnesses satisfied that as we approach the winter months, sufficient space will be available for both indoor and outdoor sports to ensure that our communities which, in some areas at least, have been largely locked up for a considerable time will have those important outlets to fall back on? Those are my two questions. I may ask one more short one afterwards.

Mr. John Kelly

I will come in on the question of space for indoor and outdoor sports and will ask Mr. Sheahan to pick up on the sports capital element. We are very conscious that we are entering the winter. As we all remember, during the deepest of the lockdown we had some great weather, which helped to get people out, but we cannot hope for that in the winter. In July, the Minister announced a fund to help out pools in dealing with some of their costs. We are aware that those costs have not gone away. As can be seen, in level 2 pools can maximise revenue if they maintain social distancing. This should make a big difference. There is no doubt but that it will be very challenging to keep indoor spaces open. It is something we will have to examine in the context of the Estimates.

Mr. Noel Sheahan

I will come in on the question of grants for large-scale projects. I probably touched on this briefly in my earlier answer. In January of this year, we announced the first allocation. As the Deputy knows, the large-scale sport infrastructure fund is a new scheme. The first allocations were made in January, when a total of €82 million was allocated to 32 different projects. All of these are still going through a due diligence process. Different schemes are at different stages of readiness. There are two streams to the fund. Stream 2 is for projects that are more or less ready for construction while stream 1 relates to ideas for projects which local authorities or national governing bodies may have. We are more or less there with regard to due diligence; we are just seeking final sign-off from our legal advisers, the Chief State Solicitor's office. We will then issue grant agreements in respect of projects that have passed that stage of the process.

Anecdotally, we have not been told that any projects will not happen. Some concern has been expressed in our engagements with the bigger national governing bodies that a certain amount of their own resources had to be provided, which is a requirement of the scheme. As members will have all heard this morning, Covid has hit the financial projections of all the national governing bodies. There is no suggestion that any of the projects will not happen but I suspect that some may be on ice or not advancing as quickly as was initially envisaged. We had always planned to sit down with the bodies after a certain stage to go through all 32 projects and to get updates.

Next year, we might examine whether these projects are proceedings, whether there is scope for reallocating to the particular national governing body or local authority or even, in the longer term, whether it is time to open up a new round of the large scale sport infrastructure fund, LSSIF, again. We are keeping it under review. I am not aware of any projects that will not proceed.

I visited a leisure centre during the week. There seemed to be increased emphasis on the need for swimming facilities, as some conditions do not allow people to run or to walk. The capital programme on swimming pool projects is due to take off again shortly. What stage is this at? When is it likely to be concluded?

Mr. Noel Sheahan

The old scheme was the local authority swimming pool programme, which we inherited a long way back from the Department of the Environment. Only three projects remain in that programme. The new large scale sport infrastructure fund, the first grants for which were announced in January, in many ways subsumed the old local authorities swimming pool programme. Any applications we get for new swimming pool projects are now covered under the LSSIF. Of the 32 projects that grant funding was announced in January, about eight had a swimming pool element. Some were new facilities and some were refurbishment work to existing pools. There is no plan to open the new local authority swimming pool programme, rather a new round of the sports capital programme itself. Sometimes local authority swimming pool projects have gym facilities and might come looking for equipment for those. We hope to open the sports capital programme next month. There are no plans to open a new round of the LSSIF in the short term but we will review that some time early next year.

I welcome the representatives from the Department and Sport Ireland. Earlier, I outlined the benefits of sport and acknowledged the huge contribution that organised sporting bodies played locally in the early days of the pandemic. They demonstrated the substantial community resource that they are. I echo John Treacy's comments on the availability of sports outside the traditional ones. I was very pleased to be involved in Sportsfest, the sports partnership led by Dublin City Council which encouraged people to try different sports that were new to them.

Sport is not a business but it does have a financial model. This morning we heard clearly from the large sporting bodies and how they operate. I am more concerned about those on the ground. I mentioned Tolka Rovers this morning. It is almost at the point of closing its gates because its financial model was based on its hall being let to different groups. The income stream from that is gone, and they now have a bank loan with no way of meeting its repayments. I imagine every sports club with a substantial premises is in a similar position.

What guarantees are in place to ensure that the €70 million going into sport in Ireland through the sporting bodies and Sport Ireland is reaching those on the ground? More importantly, non-financial help is needed to assist with the capacity in each of these clubs. The Department needs to approach representatives from the banks to ensure that much of the property owned by sporting bodies locally, often on State land on long-term leases, cannot be realised by the bank closing on them. The bank should and must take steps to restructure or be proactive. Can the Department commit to dealing with the banks to support clubs on a wider scale in order that there is a policy across the sector rather than by individual bank?

Mr. John Kelly

I thank the Deputy. I will speak on the banking issue and ask the representatives from Sport Ireland to speak about the €70 million disbursement. It is not something that has come to my attention but perhaps my colleagues have heard differently. I am happy to talk to the Deputy on that issue and see what we can do. Anything we can do through connections with the Department of Finance and the banking federation on that, we are willing to do.

Will Mr. Kelly comment regarding ensuring the highest percentage possible goes to local organisations, rather than being eaten up by national bodies?

Mr. John Kelly

Mr. McDermott might have the best insight into how that money will be disbursed.

Mr. Paul McDermott

I thank Mr. Kelly and the Deputy. There are strands of funding and the ring-fencing of €15 million for clubs is to ensure that it is channelled directly into clubs at local level. I referenced that the local sports partnerships have run clubs, again at a community level. Consequently, by having the €70 million funding programme in strands, we can make sure the money goes where it is needed most. We will review the documentation and will validate all the applications.

The first priority of the Government bodies when this crisis hit was to try to maintain activity. Second, when they said there would be a resource requirement to allow sport to continue, they put clubs first. That is the general view. Governing bodies came to us. Some of them had their own financial issues but they in general spoke to the need of clubs at a local level and that is reflected in the way the Government signed off on the funding. There will be strands and there will be mechanisms put in place to make sure those most in need can access the funding. The Deputy has referenced Tolka Rovers. We do not know the specifics of that but basketball is one of the sports. Hopefully, that will be reflected in the applications when we review them over the next few weeks. There are mechanisms put in place in our review and validation of applications to make sure clubs are looked after and the money does not just go to a national level, but will also go local.

I appreciate that reply because there is the possibility of a bank foreclosing on a club that then has to put a lock on the gate. It does not matter what level Dublin or any other county is at. No one can use that facility or that pitch and the bank is not realising any money. We need to look at the financial model of each club and perhaps ask the national bodies to put in place financial advisers and assistants to allow them to restructure in a world that does not have income from events.

It is wonderful to have the Department and Sport Ireland appear here and earlier we had the FAI, GAA and IRFU. Everyone welcomes the money and the systems from a point of view of higher-level supports to ensure we have continuity of the GAA championships, professional rugby and the League of Ireland in particular, and maintenance of all sorts of sports clubs.

There was talk of difficulties and the fact that sports organisations do not know what they will face into in the future. No more than businesses and other such entities in our society, there will be a need for further supports. People have talked about stadia and we all welcome and would look for opportunities for more people to avail of seeing their favourite teams. However, until it gets up to really significant numbers, it would not necessarily be financially beneficial to clubs and beyond. There was a suggestion that 5,000 fans in the Aviva Stadium - which one cannot even see happening at the moment - would not be financially viable and there would need to be about 18,000. Given where we are at the moment, that is incredibly difficult to see.

What contacts have the Department made in relation to budgeting and planning for the future? We are now talking about at least six to nine months but we could be talking about two years of living with this pandemic.

We could have two steps forward and three steps backwards like we have at the minute and that could put severe pressure on clubs at every level.

Mr. John Kelly

I discussed this earlier on with Deputy O'Dowd. There is no way around this. It is extremely challenging and all we can do is stay very close, both ourselves and Sport Ireland, to the NGBs and keep an eye on where things are going. As the Deputy said, the virus is changing. It is having an impact. Some places have moved from one level of alert down to another level and that is incredibly disruptive.

As I said earlier, the €70 million was welcome at that point and it really helped. We are not, however, under any illusions that it will be enough for the future. We are currently in the middle of a budget process and an Estimates process. We will engage, through Sport Ireland, with all the NGBs to get a sense of what their requirements are going to be for next year.

I will not lie; it will be difficult to plan with any visibility in the future. We will work on the spectators. We talked earlier about what we will do but we are not depending on that or planning that as something that will fill a big hole. It would be welcome if we got to that point. The reality is, however, that we will need to support the sports sector during this pandemic and that will have to continue.

That is okay. Obviously, Mr. Kelly cannot get into facts and figures, particularly if he is in a negotiation process. I will take for granted that there is acceptance that in this State, across Europe and on a wider level, we need to be imaginative. We need to ensure we put the moneys in place in order that we have an operating society beyond this pandemic.

I am inclined to believe Mr. Kelly is taking into account what was said earlier by the three groupings and the particular costs they have, whether that is for maintenance of the League of Ireland or otherwise. I also take from what he said earlier that Mr. Kelly is looking for input from all stakeholders on the needs and wants, particularly, financial, to maintain as much as we can of our sporting infrastructure.

Mr. John Kelly

Yes, we obviously want to do that. As with all things in life, whether we can achieve everything we want remains to be seen. However, we are, of course, staying close to them in terms of what we can do to keep as much sport as is safe to do so and address the real costing. The Deputy mentioned some of them and that is the real challenge in front of us.

That is brilliant. As I am generally circular in how I speak, apologies if I come back on myself at any stage. I welcome a great number of things that have been said with regard to all-Ireland co-ordination, which is obviously necessary. As for dealing with NPHET, it probably would be fair to say that when the restrictions were introduced in respect of gyms, there was a lag-time of a couple of days with regard to clarity. People were saying that only six people were allowed in a gym or only six were allowed in any exercise class. People then started reporting to me that they heard this somewhere. I was going to say that they were not even naming Dr. Ronan Glynn properly, so I assumed they had not heard it properly. I had to relisten to every utterance made by Dr. Glynn, the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly and the Taoiseach and I did not hear what I was being told I was hearing. It was a case that people believed or thought they heard something and started operating pods within gyms. It all sounded like they were doing the correct thing but I was not sure they were covered by the rules.

I then heard that Basketball Ireland obviously had made an approach and had sought information. It entered my head that nobody had probably considered indoor basketball games. That is fair enough because not everything can be covered with a blunt instrument. However, one needs to get on top of it as quickly as possible. Two or three days later Basketball Ireland got its update, which stated that indoor training could operate within pods of six. It is about ensuring the conversation is happening between NPHET, the Government, the Department, Sport Ireland and all these bodies to avoid wobbles like that, which are not absolutely necessary.

We talked about business models before. There are an awful lot of sports. I am thinking of a number of combat sports that I do myself, albeit pretty badly.

They would not necessarily have governing bodies that are recognised by Sport Ireland, etc., at this point in time. They operate on the basis of a basic business model. I do not mean that they make crazy money but they charge people to take part and one hopes that it washes its face with whatever other funding and allocations they can get. Many of them would have been put under pressure when that happened. This is to ensure that we have clarity and that we maintain as much as we can, even with heightened restrictions that may happen in the future.

Mr. John Kelly

I completely agree with the Deputy. It is our objective to be as clear as possible and I think that the roadmap will help to give people a sense of what each level means. We have good relations with the Department of the Taoiseach, from which the roadmap emanates, and with the Department of Health. We have taken an approach to sport where we take the guidelines, go away and then come back with our solutions. That has worked well. The committee has heard Mr. McDermott say that Sport Ireland is in regular contact with NGBs. We try to get it as clear as possible and to get all the wrinkles ironed out before anything goes out. With the best will in the world, that is not always possible so we try to clarify it as soon as possible. Mr. McDermott might address his contacts with NGBs.

Mr. Paul McDermott

We appreciate the Deputy's contribution. We try to turn things around quickly between the expert group, with Mr. Hogan and colleagues in the Department, and governing bodies, and we try to provide clarity as well as we can. It has worked reasonably well. Some challenges are difficult to overcome. We understand that some combat sports operate in a way that is not that straightforward to assist at present because they operate in indoor facilities with large groups. As the Deputy says, people are just paying for classes. That is tricky. Having said that, the Irish Athletic Boxing Association has excellent protocols. It introduced them as a conservative return to boxing and that has generally gone quite well.

We appreciate the point the Deputy is making. We endeavour to turn the information around quickly. It worked well during various phases of the roadmap. The expert group was obviously critical to that because sports presented protocols and were given feedback, advice, approval or direction, and that gave the governing bodies significant confidence to go back to their clubs and communities to say that was how they needed to do it. The existence of that mechanism was critical to giving the governing bodies confidence to go out to their clubs. No doubt, with how all of this has unfolded over the last weeks and months, there have been a few stumbles along the way. We did not get it 100% perfect every time but the intent and ambition is there to support it and to make sure that every sport is operating safely, and to allow the maximum number of people to participate in the sport of their choice. It has gone reasonably well and hopefully it will continue in that way. The new regime gives a platform for the next six to nine months. We have many questions and have clarity from the past 24 hours about the new levels. Hopefully that will give sports bodies confidence. Mr. Hogan is chairman of the expert group so no doubt he would like to speak to that.

Mr. Peter Hogan

I thank Mr. McDermott and I thank the Deputy for his question. We appreciate that there can be hiccups along the way. I have a couple of comments to make. The first is to express our thanks and appreciation to all members of the expert group, particularly those sporting representatives who have joined us and done extraordinary work for us. It has been a collaborative effort over the last few months. As Mr. Kelly mentioned earlier, we have had 17 meetings. One is taking people who are moving well outside their sphere of expertise in the context of the sports that they work with daily, and making that expertise available to minority sports and smaller national governing bodies to assist them to find ways to return to their training and competitive action in a safe way. It ensures that participants, officials who will be present, spectators on site and the wider community will feel confident that the sport is responsible and that events in their communities are being done in a safe, managed way in line with public health guidance.

It is important to remember that everything we do has to be in line with the public health guidance. We have a good relationship with colleagues in the Department of Health. We have had contacts with the acting CMO. We also had contacts with Dr. Holohan before he stood down from his position. There has always been a general agreement across the Government that sport and physical activity is hugely beneficial. It will play an important role in safeguarding health and well-being as we move through the next six to nine months while we are dealing with the pandemic. It continues to play a positive role but we just need to make sure what is happening is safe, managed, overseen and properly supervised. I have every confidence we will continue to do so.

I welcome what has been said. I accept there will always be wobbles and mistakes. If we are looking to cut them out, that is fine. I get the point of view of Mr. Hogan and the sporting organisations that despite a couple of faux pas, a plan that operates for six to nine months is far better than what we were probably operating with beforehand. Once we have clarity and people have things explained to them, they can accept them.

I wonder if Mr. Treacy or somebody from Sport Ireland could talk about particular difficulties that certain clubs would have. I have had approaches from a swimming club that is under heightened financial pressure because the swimming pool has to operate with new rules and regulations on distancing, etc., which is all fine but which involves added costs to the club. I wonder whether there were any other such sectors. I accept that if one looks for information on what people's wants and needs are, one will find a huge amount of difficulties that many of us will not even have considered.

Mr. John Treacy

I will give the Deputy an idea of some of the challenges. He probably knows that many of the income streams of some clubs have been lost because of local competitions involving an income that did not happen or because of lost revenues in terms of membership. Many clubs are facing such issues, which are starting to affect the winter sports now. I refer to members joining clubs, or clubs joining the national federation, in sports like gymnastics or cycling. That has been a factor in many of the NGBs losing membership fees. That is challenging. We will see that come through in some of the applications we will get. There is also the cost of losing local fundraising. People cannot be as active on the fundraising side at local level. That is one piece, and the loss of commercial sponsorship for local tournaments is another piece. Many clubs and smaller NGBs in the winter sports are facing those challenges coming down the tracks. The funding that is being provided - the €15 million for the clubs or the €10 million for the smaller NGBs - will be pivotal in getting them through such challenges. We are very much aware of what those challenges are. I suppose the longer this goes on, the greater the challenges will be. It will go into 2021. If it goes late into 2021, more resources will be required. That is just a fact of life. I will ask Mr. McDermott to come in.

Mr. Paul McDermott

A number of speakers have raised the issue of swimming pools. Notwithstanding the popularity of outdoor swimming at locations around the country like the Forty Foot in Dublin, swimming pools are ultimately where people swim and take their exercise. Facilitating access to a pool is complex because it is an indoor facility. Swimming pools are expensive to run, etc. There is a concern around swimming. We are working closely with Ireland Active and Swim Ireland, as Mr. Peter Hogan mentioned earlier on.

I refer to sports like basketball, which is an important winter sport in Ireland and is very popular and widely played. We were heartened when Bernard O'Byrne, the CEO of Basketball Ireland, recently said that the clubs have been very creative in accessing venues if certain venues were closed to them. We understand that it is very challenging for them and we are committed to working with Basketball Ireland. The indoor season over the winter is going to be difficult for certain sports. We dealt with a range of challenges over the summer. Mr. Treacy has mentioned some of the things that sports clubs and governing bodies have faced such as loss of income from events and various memberships and affiliations. We are overcoming that and will work very closely with all partners referenced earlier to deal with the different challenges that are going to arise over the winter. Some of them are not completely in our control because of the nature of the virus and this health crisis. We are absolutely committed to working with the governing bodies and clubs to address their particular issues.

Obviously we are looking at stadia. We probably also need to look at some purpose-built sports facilities where we would have the likes of indoor soccer. While I accept that generally team sports were sorted, I refer to ad hoc type training scenarios taking place in these huge multipurpose facilities offering multiple slots for multiple teams. In those scenarios, everybody would be particularly distanced and removed from each other and all the rest of it but they probably fell between stools in respect of rules and so on. That is something that needs to be looked at. An awful lot of people who engage in sport are not necessarily doing so in set teams. It is the case of the couple of fellows who meet up on a Monday and a Thursday. They all think they are Lionel Messi, but they are not. Such a person could be sitting in this room at the minute, thinking he has a twisted ankle. That is myself I am talking about.

Mr. John Treacy

My advice is that if someone has a concern or question, to talk to their national governing body, NGB, or local sports partnership. What has been set up within sport is second to none. The expert group, which is chaired by Mr. Hogan, provides a mechanism in that the inquires coming through Sport Ireland are fed into the expert group and, through Mr. Hogan, any inquiries that we or the expert group cannot answer are fed into the Department of Health for guidance. That mechanism has worked extremely well. I want to pay tribute to the Department and Mr. Hogan for putting it in place. Sport Ireland is there to help them through that as well, if required. The process has worked extremely well in recent months and the sports have found it extremely helpful.

I really appreciate what everyone has said. I commend Sport Ireland, the FAI, the IRFU, the GAA and all the clubs on all the work that has been done during the pandemic and now. We all accept that the watching and particularly the playing of sport are really useful for connectivity in the community and from a mental health point of view. The only two requests I have is that if a consideration could be made that we could have social distancing in boxing because I think I could make a return if there was a 2 m distance between me and my opponent. Unfortunately Deputy Fitzpatrick has gone but if Mr. John Treacy was able to give me a training programme that would mean I could beat him when eventually we get back to 5 km and 10 km races in Dundalk, I would be very happy with that.

Mr. John Treacy

That is a given.

Did Mr. Hogan wish to come in?

Mr. Peter Hogan

I think Mr. Treacy has covered that question.

I thank all the witnesses. I have one question for Mr. Treacy, who competed as an elite athlete. Can he outline the impact the postponement of the Olympics will have on the preparation that elite athletes are going through and on their prospects of success?

Timing is everything in athletics, as in politics. Someone could be on top of his or her game at a particular time and, unfortunately, be past it a year later.

Mr. John Treacy

It is a very good question. Athletes hate uncertainty. They are very good planners. Generally, athletes plan on a ten-month cycle. Swimmers might be a bit different but, generally, it is that type of cycle. There is a rest period and then they have their foundation period. It is all geared towards a peak on a given day. If a person is preparing in 2019 for 2020 and half way through that cycle and the Olympic Games are pulled, it leaves a big void in one's life. One is all the time thinking about this date in July or August 2020 and now that date is gone. One is lost. One then looks to the next competition but the summer is uncertain also because competitions were not happening. It is a time of great uncertainty for the athletes. They always have a focus and that focus was gone for a long period. The 8 July was a very important date because it enabled those athletes to get back to training. They could get away from training on their own and back into an environment where they were around people of a similar mindset and ilk. They could start planning again. They were around the experts, whether they be coaches, high performance directors or whoever, who provide that guidance to them in terms of getting them to focus again.

Athletes are resilient. Sanita Puspure said it very well. When the date was set for 2021, the focus went on that date straight away. That is the date all athletes are now working towards and that is what they need. They need that date. All the performance directors and coaches will be working hard to get the athlete to peak on that day. They have a focus again and that is very important. If they are back in an environment where they are with their coaches and training at a very high level for the winter months they will be fine but in terms of springtime, getting back into early competitions is vital because those competitions are very important if the athletes are to reach their peak in July. That is part of that session. It is about getting oneself in peak condition and putting oneself through the rigours of competition. There is nothing like competition to get one ready for the big day. There is a period of uncertainty but at least they have a date now. The news out of Tokyo a couple of weeks ago from the Olympic movement was very encouraging. The Japanese are keen to progress with this. It might look like a different Olympic Games but it is proceeding. The athletes need that certainty but they are resilient, and they are fantastic people to be around.

The teams are back in action. Coming into 2020, we had three teams in equestrian sport that had qualified. The women's hockey team had qualified. We had won a total of 80 medals internationally and we were going into the games in very good shape. This has been a major setback for us but we are putting our faith in the athletes. The athletes have the services, through the Sport Ireland Institute, that they require. The system is in place to support them. Everyone is available to support them but it is an uncertain time for an elite athlete who is preparing. Athletes are very conscious of their health and well-being. They are cautious people also and that extra danger in the environment is probably something that is very much on their minds and which they want to avoid at all costs so they would be very cautious in terms of their approach. The issue is more serious if it is a contact sport but if one is in an individual sport, at least one can train with people and not have that social contact. It is a time of great uncertainty for every Irish athlete who is preparing for 2021.

I thank Mr. Treacy. I thank all our witnesses for attending and for the information they provided.

It will feed into our final report, which will be presented to the Dáil by the end of September. I will now adjourn the committee until next Wednesday at 9 a.m. when we hope to have the first of four sessions at which we will examine the recently launched resilience and recovery plan and the plan for living with Covid-19. We hope to hear from the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, senior civil servants in the Department of Health and representatives of NPHET, the HSE and the Health Protection Surveillance Centre. We also hope to get some perspectives from Professor Giske of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, Professor Schaeffer, UCD, and Professor Ryan, Trinity College Dublin, who will speak on testing.

I thank all the witnesses for attending today and for their information.

The special committee adjourned at 3 p.m. until 9 a.m. on Wednesday, 23 September 2020.