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Government Communications

Dáil Éireann Debate, Tuesday - 14 December 2021

Tuesday, 14 December 2021

Questions (7, 8, 9)

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

7. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the Government Information Service unit. [59968/21]

View answer

Cathal Crowe

Question:

8. Deputy Cathal Crowe asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the Government Information Service unit. [61363/21]

View answer

Alan Kelly

Question:

9. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the Government Information Service unit. [61497/21]

View answer

Oral answers (18 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take the Questions Nos. 7 to 9, inclusive, together.

The Government Information Service, GIS co-ordinates cross-Government communications and comprises the Government Press Office and the Merrion Street content team. The GIS co-ordinates communications on cross-Government priority issues such as Housing for All and the State’s response to Brexit and Covid-19. The GIS manages press conferences and media briefings, both for the Department and the Government in support of cross-Government programmes and priorities. The GIS also manages the Government of Ireland identity, and supports and encourages capacity-building in the area of communications and engagement across the Civil Service and the public service, including through training and development and the holding of meetings of the Government communications network on a quarterly basis.

I think it is fair to say that the past few weeks have not been the Government's finest hour in Covid-19 communications. For months parents were told that schools were safe, and then suddenly they were not. Measures were introduced with little explanation to the general public. The initial circular from the Department to schools was militant and divisive. I note that the Taoiseach sought in his commentary over the weekend to lay blame for these failures at the door of the Chief Medical Officer, CMO, and his team.

I beg the Deputy's pardon?

Despite failing to prepare the ground for additional public health measures in schools, the Government is still dragging its heels and mixing its messages on the substantive investment in ventilation needed to keep the school community safe. There is no clear communication from the Government on this issue. When he is pressed on the matter, the Taoiseach continues to lay responsibility for his Government's shortfalls in classroom ventilation, for example, at the CMO's door. This needs to be rectified and clarified. Government communication on the booster roll-out has not fared much better with the Taoiseach making particularly divisive comments last week.

There has been a myriad of issues with the booster roll-out campaign but instead of recognising that the Government strategy was to blame, the entire population was blamed for these shortfalls. We know that people have attended walk-in centres across the country in their droves, queueing for long periods to get the booster vaccine. People are going to their GPs and waiting for appointments with their pharmacists. Throughout the pandemic, people have demonstrated time and again their commitment to keeping themselves, their families and their communities safe. I urge the Taoiseach and his Government to be much more considered and thoughtful in their communications on Covid and to shoulder responsibility for shortfalls when the responsibility rests with them and not with other agencies or individuals.

Is the Cabinet insisting on some form of investigation taking place in respect of the leaking of NPHET guidance in recent weeks before it came into the public domain or even, at times, before it came to the Cabinet? It is very frustrating. As a backbench Deputy, I sometimes feel like we are fighting fires with some of that information. It is circulating in the public domain and then, hours later, comes out officially and is clarified and subsequently clarified again.

As we negotiate our way further through Covid and the fourth wave, with the Omicron variant now taking off, I ask that daily Government Information Service, GIS, briefings be provided for all Deputies, particularly those of us who support the Government. I do not think it is fair for us to have to phone the Minister for Health on his mobile phone to get a brief. The GIS should circulate the short scripts daily. There is a short script, but it needs to be disseminated again now that we are in a fourth wave. There was a time when the public did not want to consume Covid statistics every single day but I think the GIS should circulate the short script daily to make that communication through the tentacles of democracy a little bit easier.

The Taoiseach stated last week that NPHET had not been gagged after the announcement that all Covid communications and requests for interviews were now to be put through the GIS. Who decided that is the way it will be? He also stated last week that he had checked back on what happened the weekend before last and that nobody was stopped from going on any media programme. Is that still his position? Is an investigation under way into who leaked the NPHET decision in the first place or was that just a fabricated row for the Government to distract from the communications omnishambles of the past two weeks? I remind the Taoiseach that I appeared on a media programme last night in respect of the HEPA filters grant that has just been announced by the Government. That RTÉ programme could not get a Government representative to appear on it to discuss the issue.

The Government information on HEPA filters in schools has been all over the place, to put it mildly. After months of campaigning by People Before Profit, trade unions, parents and teachers, the Government has been dragged, kicking and screaming, to accept the necessity, in some limited circumstances, of HEPA filters in schools. It is progress and some new money actually promised this week, but it is inadequate.

I ask the Taoiseach to consider the amount of money involved. I recently spoke to the principal of a school with 400 pupils and 15 classrooms. It will get €6,000 extra according to the Government figures and will be able to put one HEPA filter in every third classroom. The principal will have to choose. The principal stated that the school absolutely does need the HEPA filters. It also means the burden is placed on teachers and principals to go out into the market and buy these filters for themselves rather than the Department of Education getting them.

It also raises a question in respect of something the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, stated twice. He stated it first on the "Today with Claire Byrne" programme on 29 November and dealing with HEPA filters, when he claimed that the advice the Government has from HSE antimicrobial resistance and infection control, AMRIC, which looks at this in great detail, is not to put them in. He effectively repeated the same on RTÉ "Prime Time" on 30 November. The claim was a surprise to me and to the NPHET expert group on ventilation, so I tabled a parliamentary question to the Minister, asking for a copy of the advice where AMRIC advises against HEPA filters. It is clear from the reply that no such advice was ever given. AMRIC did not advise against HEPA filters. Once again, it seems the Minister was simply making it up as he went along. The advice the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, hid behind on two RTÉ programmes to defend the absence of HEPA filters to keep students and teachers safe in school did not exist. Can the Taoiseach have confidence in a Minister who is making things up on RTÉ programmes to explain away the disastrous policy of the Government on Covid?

The Government needs to get clear information out to people whose incomes and employment are impacted as we head into Christmas. I do not know how many times in the past two years I have raised the issue of the plight of musicians and entertainers. They are in a dire state at the moment because the public health measures and restrictions and the voluntary decisions of many people to scale back their social outings and social activities mean that the work of musicians and entertainers has collapsed. Some of the venues are getting money and so on but the work of jobbing musicians, of whom there are thousands, has collapsed. These are people who have been hit again and again and again. They have had to fight all the way along to get little crumbs of support in terms of the music and entertainment business assistance scheme and the other Covid support scheme, but both of those funds are now depleted and apparently will not be reviewed until January. As we head into Christmas, some of these people are not able to get the full PUP. They are on lower payments and jobseeker's payments and so on. There is no fairness or consistency and their incomes are hammered. Some of them are now experiencing banks moving against them in terms of their homes. They wrote to the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, on 22 November, asking for an urgent meeting which she has not given them. A cross-party group that meets with entertainers met yesterday. They are seriously worried about the situation facing musicians and entertainers. I plead with the Taoiseach to make it easy for them to get the PUP, to reactivate the support funds and to ask the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, to meet as a matter of urgency with representatives of musicians and entertainers before Christmas.

This day last week, the Taoiseach stated that only 93,000 of 180,000 people showed up for their booster appointments. He suggested there was not the same urgency for boosters as there was for the first doses of the Covid-19 vaccine. Does he stand by that statement? Is it still correct? Was it even correct last week? My office and those of other Deputies are getting calls from people who want the booster shot and are eligible but have not received a text message, people who have received a text message but already got the booster shot elsewhere, people who are being told by their GPs that there are no boosters available to them and people who have gone to the open vaccine centres and waited several hours in a queue for a vaccine. On Sunday morning in Navan, for example, there were hundreds of cars stretching far up the roads outside the vaccine centre. People were queueing for hours at that vaccine centre. In many ways, the confusion in respect of this mirrors the confusion in respect of the roll-out of the vaccines at the start of the Covid crisis. I remember that at that stage there were people on consultants' lists and other doctors' lists who were getting two invitations. I know a person with stage 4 cancer who could not get an invitation from either list and had fallen through the stools in that regard.

What the country actually needs - the Taoiseach probably knows this because he has experience - is a centralised patient database to enable us to roll out these programmes efficiently, as countries such as Denmark have done. Until we have that central patient database, we will always have this type of confusion in respect of what is happening to patients and the messages we are getting. Will the Taoiseach commit to the development of such a centralised patient database?

I have to stand back and reflect on some of the commentary that is emerging. Deputy Tóibín stated that this reminds him of the confusion at the start of the vaccination programme. We have a great capacity to knock ourselves as a country. I will go to the European Council meeting tomorrow. When I have gone to such meetings recently, the refrain has always been about the extraordinary achievements of Ireland in vaccinating close to 93% of the adult population. All Deputy Tóibín can say about that is "confusion". That is the only comment he can make about it.

Was anything I said incorrect?

Through the Chair, just to make the point-----

Was anything I said incorrect?

I am just reflecting on it. It says a lot about the lack of balance and perspective in terms of his commentary in respect of what has been achieved by those involved in the vaccination programme. In terms of GPs, for example, stocks can be supplied to a GP within two days now. Those are the logistical operations the HSE has established with GPs.

I have heard that GPs have said they are short of vaccines but they can get on to the HSE and within two days they will have a supply.

What about the idea of this being centralised?

More broadly, without doubt the Omicron variant has created a very strong sense of urgency. There is no question about that. It is vital that we vaccinate as many people as possible as quickly as possible. To be fair, every effort is being made. We are working with GPs and pharmacies and the Defence Forces are helping by providing additionality with logistics support for the booster campaign.

We are number one in Europe in terms of the primary vaccination programme and the number of people vaccinated. We are fourth in Europe with our booster campaign, with approximately 1.25 million boosters administered, starting on 4 October based on advice from the national immunisation advisory committee in respect of when to commence those vaccinations.

Deputy McDonald raised the issue of communications, people's behaviour and so forth. People took up very quickly the core message over the past two months, particularly our intervention around behaviour, working from home and so forth. They were not confused by the central message on the need to adjust behaviour in response to the Delta variant wave, getting hospitalisations and ICU admissions down. The result has been a reduction and stabilisation in the numbers admitted to hospitals and ICUs. People have got the message fairly clearly in terms of behaviour and so forth.

I take issue with a comment from the Deputy when she said that at the weekend I laid the blame on the CMO and his team. I certainly did not and whoever wrote that script for the Deputy should rewrite it and stop being divisive like that now because I do not lay the blame on the CMO, nor have I ever laid the blame on him. I have great respect for the CMO and his team, NPHET and public health advice. I have been very consistent since my days in opposition when the pandemic started that public health advice had to be central to combating this pandemic. The Deputy knows this because she was in the same room when I said it to the then Government. Deputy Shortall and others were in the room at that stage. That has always been my view and I do not lay the blame on anybody. I do not know the context but it seems to have been a deliberate "mis-spin" from the Deputy or her scriptwriter in respect of my behaviour at the weekend.

On the question of schools, we have again followed public health advice all the way. It has been the consistent approach from the beginning of the pandemic. A specialist team from the HSE has advised consistently on how to approach schools in respect of that.

The overall picture is that the booster vaccination programme is gaining momentum. There will be further developments and expansion of it. Our focus right now is on really expanding the programme and ensuring people are conscious of the significant threat that the Omicron variant represents. Its potential impact is a matter of real concern to us all.

Could I get an answer about musicians?

The Minister with responsibility for tourism has been given additional funding by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform for performers. We want performers to perform and venues to stay open as much as possible. There is the Omicron variant threat but we have supports put in place because we acknowledge such people have been hit by the Delta variant threat and guidance we have issued in respect of people not congregating excessively and so on. We accept that and we have provided supports.

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