Wednesday, 31 March 2021

Questions (15, 16, 17, 18, 19)

Alan Kelly


15. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on health last met; and when it next plans to meet. [13096/21]

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Mary Lou McDonald


16. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on health will next meet. [13102/21]

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Richard Boyd Barrett


17. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on health last met; and when it next plans to meet. [15560/21]

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Paul Murphy


18. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on health last met; and when it next plans to meet. [16825/21]

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Mick Barry


19. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on health last met; and when it next plans to meet. [17191/21]

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Oral answers (13 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 15 to 19, inclusive, together.

The Cabinet committee on health oversees implementation of programme for Government commitments in relation to health, receives detailed reports on identified policy areas and considers the implementation of health reforms, including Sláintecare. The Cabinet committee last met on Monday, 14 December and will meet again shortly. In addition to the meetings of the full Cabinet and of Cabinet committees, I meet Ministers on an individual basis to focus on different issues. I meet the Minister for Health regularly to discuss priorities in the area of health and in particular our management of and response to Covid-19.

The pandemic has led to unprecedented interruption to normal healthcare activity in both acute and community settings. Since the outset of the pandemic, patients and services have been clinically prioritised and the HSE has ensured that time-critical services, along with many routine services, have been protected, meaning that people who need it currently have had access to the services.

To ensure services are restored in a clinically prioritised manner, last week the HSE published a plan for restoring health and social care services in a Covid-19 environment, entitled A Safe Return to Health Services. This plan provides an operational framework for the safe return to services at a local level. It includes an overview of the services to be resumed, the target for their safe return and some detail on the conditions and challenges that have to be met. Every phase has been informed by clinical guidance and putting patient safety first. The full restoration of health care is dependent on continuing to suppress Covid-19 to avoid another surge for our health services and the associated impacts.

I will raise only one issue and that is human papillomavirus, HPV, vaccination. We all know through the questions I asked a week and a half ago that it has dropped from 80% to 53.6%, which is deeply worrying. I am passionate about this, have worked on it for years and having lobbied to get HPV brought in for boys. What will we do to catch up? Students have gone back to school. We need to have a catch-up. There is no information coming from the HSE as to what catch-up programme will be implemented for HPV.

I suggest we put it for the period of the catch-up to pharmacies, free of charge. I have been inundated with people who want to get their children vaccinated but cannot. As it looks like there will be continuous issues in schools so let us have the other option of doing it through pharmacies and potentially GPs. Laura Brennan's legacy cannot be let go like this, nor can all the work and advocacy she, in particular, did along with others. Will the Taoiseach please ensure there is a catch-up programme so we can get back on track in relation to HPV vaccinations?

I too refer to the plans for a safe return of health services, as published by the HSE. I specifically focus on cancer services, which will not be fully restored until the end of the year, with 90% scheduled by the end of September. All of this is reliant on a successful vaccination roll-out. We cannot afford to miss these targets. The prioritisation of early diagnosis and screening services is central and the Irish Cancer Society has made a call for additional investment and workforce planning to increase low take-up and extend existing programmes to wider populations. Will the Government and, specifically, this sub-committee of Cabinet engage directly with the society on the priority actions it has identified?

Covid-19 has further underlined the need for proper mental health services. We have thousands of adults and children waiting for assessments and services. I spent an hour on the phone last night to a young student studying to be a psychologist. She told me a tale of woe about the plight of people studying to be psychologists and trying to get on doctorate training programmes to be psychologists. In their MA programme, they pay €8,000 to €15,000 in fees. The number of places for psychologists in doctorate training has fallen in the last year and they are not funded. Some of them are funded somewhat but not sufficiently. In education and counselling psychology, they are not funded at all. To make a long story short, she said that working-class people who want to do psychology have virtually no chance of getting doctorates because of the cost, fees, hurdles and obstacles put in their way.

The CEO of Beacon private hospital was caught red-handed essentially stealing public vaccines, treating them as his personal property. He should not get any special treatment just because he is the boss at Denis O'Brien's private hospital and part of the golden circle. The Taoiseach says it was wrong and a gross breach of trust. I agree. The question is whether there will be any consequences. Does the Taoiseach agree his actions should be criminally investigated by the Garda? Does he agree there should be an independent audit involving representatives of the INMO and patients to see exactly what happened? Concretely, does he agree the CEO of the Beacon should resign or be sacked for his disgraceful misappropriation of public vaccines?

SouthDoc is paid €7 million annually by the HSE to provide out-of-hours GP care for public patients. Despite this, their centres in Blackpool on Cork's north side and Listowel in County Kerry are shut. The Blackpool centre has been shut for over a year. The HSE has expressed grave concern about this situation.

The health needs of the people of the north side must not be shoved to one side. When will the Taoiseach and Minister for Health intervene to make sure those doors open again?

Across the country, the State is failing to meet the needs of children with ASD. In Cork, at least 50 children are without a place in Cara Junior School next year. At least a further eight Cara Junior School students are without a special needs secondary school for next September. Will the Taoiseach speak with the relevant Minister to ensure places are immediately found for these eight students and plans are explored for a new school in Cork for schoolchildren with a dual diagnosis? Apologies, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, I know this question would be more appropriately addressed to the Department of Education but the parents asked me to make sure it was posed.

I thank the Deputy. We are running out of time. Deputy Tóibín wanted to contribute briefly.

Today, 480 people will get cancer and, tragically, more people will likely die of cancer. Late diagnosis and treatment will lead to much more advanced cancers coming into the system, which will lead to greater levels of morbidity and death. Why has the Government reduced cancer services when the need is so great at the moment? Will the Government guarantee that full cancer services will return immediately?

I find some of the rhetoric here extraordinary. I take it Deputy Tóibín realises we are in a global pandemic. No Government premeditatedly decides to reduce cancer services. The Deputy should get bloody well realistic. Excuse me, I should not use the word "bloody" but I genuinely think it is a bit much. We want to provide the maximum level of cancer services. There have been backlogs because we are in the middle of a global pandemic, which has had a terrible impact on front-line healthcare services. The national cancer control programme has a schedule for the resumption of cancer services. It is very important. We want to get back to 100% of 2019 levels and we are making progress in some respects in doing that. Part of the reason for the very slow reopening announced yesterday was to facilitate a resumption of services in healthcare. We have provided the resourcing but there have been challenges because of Covid-19. That is obvious.

The Deputy is entitled to make comments but I have to respond. Fair is fair here; no one is reducing cancer services in a premeditated way.

The Government has reduced cancer services.

Deputy Kelly made a very fair point about the reduction in HPV vaccinations. That is a very important issue on which I will revert to him. I will engage with the HSE in terms of the catch-up, perhaps utilising other agencies. Again, all hands are on deck in terms of the vaccination and will be in respect of GPs in particular.

What about pharmacists?

Hopefully, pharmacists will also be involved as we move more into critical mass vaccination. I take the Deputy's point. The HPV vaccination is extremely important and Laura Brennan's legacy must be honoured in that respect. I take that point.

Deputy Boyd Barrett raised the issue of pathways for those studying for a PhD in psychology. I am certainly of the view that we must do everything we possibly can to facilitate better progression through postgraduate education, particularly for people from disadvantaged financial or income backgrounds.

Regarding Deputy Murphy's question, I have been very clear on the Beacon Hospital issue. It was absolutely wrong but it is not for me to determine. I do not set myself up as judge, jury and executioner, and I never have, for example, in terms of criminality in that regard, as the Deputy has asserted. He raised that issue. No one should get any special treatment with regard to any transgression such as this.

We have provided resources to the HSE to ensure the resumption of SouthDoc in Blackpool and Listowel and also for new schools in Cork. I am fully in agreement that we need to provide additional places. I have been in touch with the Minister for Education, the Department and agencies and schools locally to make sure there is a sufficiency of provision for children with special needs in the Cork region, of which there is a dearth at the moment. We need to change the system somewhat as too many schools or agencies seem to have the power within themselves to say "No".