Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

News is breaking of the most unimaginable tragedy in Essex where 38 adults and one teenager have been found dead in a container that entered the United Kingdom through Holyhead. It is an unspeakable tragedy and our immediate thoughts are with the families and communities of those affected. I am conscious that the news is only breaking and that there is very little detail. It is something to which the House may have to come back in the coming days if there has been any involvement of an Irish port in the travels of the container.

Yesterday evening a boil water notice was issued by Irish Water. It is impacting on more than 600,000 people throughout counties Dublin and Kildare and parts of Meath. It has been reported that the notice was issued because the Leixlip treatment plant had been compromised when the disinfection process did not work correctly. Clearly the notice was not issued in a manner Irish Water would have the capacity to deal with the volume of people that would be affected or the volume of queries. People were asked to make contact on the website, but it crashed. This morning they were referred to Twitter or the Irish Water website to look at maps, but they are very difficult to read, particularly for those with issues with their vision or older people. People are finding that Irish Water is still trying to update the maps, 18 hours later. It all seems to be very ad hoc and does not suggest Irish Water has contingency plans in place for an event such as this.

As I said, 600,000 people are affected. According to the most recent update from Irish Water, at 11.45 a.m., the boil water notice will last for a few more days, but it does not have a time or date. Will the Taoiseach update us on his understanding of it? It affects almost 20% of the population. What is his view of what happened last night? Is Irish Water fit for purpose? When an event such as this happens, its communications strategy needs to be robust enough to give people vital information when they need it. When was the Government informed of the impending boil water notice? Did the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, have meetings with Irish Water officials last night or this morning to discuss the impact of the boil water notice and ensure low income communities, in particular, would be provided with access to the necessary water tankers to ensure they would not be affected by it?

Reports have come in this morning that 39 people who include at least one minor have been found dead in a container in Essex. The information we have so far is very sketchy, but there are some reports that the truck may have passed through Ireland at some point. Obviously, we will need to obtain more information and carry out any necessary investigation that may be required. Everyone's thoughts are with those who have died and their families. It is a really terrible human tragedy. We will carry out any investigation that is necessary if it is established that the truck passed through Ireland.

On the major boil water notice covering north Dublin and counties Kildare and Meath, the incident has given rise to serious disruption and resulted in more than 600,000 people and many businesses being subject to inconvenience. The boil water notice covers my constituency and home and I understand it may last for several days. The Government's concern, first and foremost, is to ensure people's health is protected from any risk as a result of this incident. We want to see the notice being lifted without undue delay but only as soon as the water supply is deemed to be safe. Irish Water, the HSE and the EPA are all working to ensure this will happen as quickly as possible and keeping the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and the Government informed. The EPA is conducting an investigation to find out exactly what went wrong at the water treatment plant and why. I am informed that a fault at the plant in Leixlip resulted in water that had not been fully treated entering the distribution network for a period of time on Monday. Once the fault was detected on Monday evening, the plant was shut down and the fault quickly repaired. The plant was brought back into full production on Tuesday morning and is now producing treated water in full compliance with water safety requirements. However, because partially treated water needs to work its way through the entirety of the network and the test results need to show that this has happened, estimates from Irish Water and the EPA suggest it will take approximately 24 to 48 hours for the water to fully flow through the water network. As the water that did get into the system was chlorinated at all times, the main risk comes from chlorine tolerated microorganisms that could have made it past the treatment systems into the treated water network. In terms of engagement with the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, I do not have the exact timelines, but if I can get them, I will pass them on.

I welcome the Taoiseach's commitment to monitor the position on the access of the container through Irish ports. As Ireland cannot become an easy target for human trafficking, I welcome the commitment.

Coming back to the Irish Water issue, the Taoiseach has said the fault was identified on Monday evening, but it took 24 hours for a boil water notice to be issued to so many people. If the fault was identified on Monday evening, there was time to put plans in place for contingency planning, to provide information and engage in communication. The Taoiseach has said the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, is keeping in touch with Irish Water. Is he being a little more proactive? Has he met Irish Water management and regional management? If it takes 48 hours for the water to pass through, does that mean the period of 48 hours runs from Monday evening? My party and I fully accept and support making health a priority, but ahead of a bank holiday weekend people will want information. They will want certainty on the water supply ahead of any weekend but, in particular, ahead of a bank holiday weekend. We need more information and certainty than what we are getting.

That is correct. The fault was found on Monday evening. The Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, has asked the EPA to provide him with a full report on the incident, its causes and the responses of Irish Water and Fingal County Council which operates the plant on its behalf. The way it works is that before a boil water notice can be lifted, there must be three rounds of clear samples, which can take a number of days to complete. At this stage, I cannot give people a guarantee that the notice will be lifted before the bank holiday weekend. It could take quite a number of days before it is lifted. I do not want to give a date today which I cannot necessarily stand over. The plant is relatively new. It is not at under-capacity or under-equipped. It is operated by Fingal County Council under a service level agreement with Irish Water. The Irish Water website suffered heavy traffic and was down for some time on Tuesday evening and again this morning. Irish Water has increased web server capacity to deal with web traffic during the incident. We extend our thanks to the media, including the RTÉ website, Dublin City Council's social media service and others who distributed information during the week. I am advised that no tankers are needed because the boil water notice is a precaution. The fault was detected during the course of Monday and corrected, but the EPA needed to identify exactly what had happened and the level of risk before issuing a boil water notice.

I call Deputy McDonald.

Has the Minister met Irish Water? Has he picked up the telephone?

Please, Deputy. I have called Deputy McDonald.

As has been said, 600,000 households in counties Dublin, Kildare and Meath are today subject to a boil water notice. I heard the Irish Water customer service manager on radio this morning, who was unclear on how long the notice would last. She speculated that it might be a number of days, as the Taoiseach has just said. The lack of clarity will do very little to assure or comfort the 600,000 families affected. I am particularly concerned about families with young children, older citizens and those with illnesses.

For them, this is not just an inconvenience; it is a source of real stress and worry.

Of course, we can be sure this is not the only boil water notice that has been issued this year. In 2018, 44 boil water notices were issued, affecting 14 counties and, in 2017, 21 notices were issued. The one currently in place is the biggest ever issued in the State.

An incident at Leixlip water plant gave rise to this boil water notice. It is not yet fully clear what happened at Leixlip; we simply do not know. We do know that there was a previous incident at the Leixlip water plant in March of this year. At that time, a pump failure compromised the quality and purity of the water. In response to that incident, the office of environmental enforcement of the EPA carried out an audit. That audit was published on 3 April this year and issued specific recommendations and stipulated that Irish Water must submit a report to the agency within one month of the date of publication, which was by May 2019.

We do not know if the incident yesterday is related to the previous incident in March. We do not know if it was a repetition of the incident in March but we need to find out. As the Taoiseach said, Leixlip is a relatively new water plant and, like many water plants, it is privately run under the design, build and operate public private partnerships, PPPs, so beloved of, and delivered by, Fianna Fáil.

Families need to know that the treatment and provision of their water is to the highest standard. They need to know that water plants are managed and operated properly. Does the Taoiseach know if the incident yesterday is related to the incident at the same plant in March? Did Irish Water respond to the EPA report of that time within the month stipulated and were the recommendations addressed? Is the Taoiseach satisfied that the design, build and operate contract in operation at that plant in Leixlip is fit for purpose?

I absolutely appreciate that people want clarity and clear information about when the boil notice can be lifted. As I mentioned earlier, this affects my own constituency and may even affect part of Deputy McDonald's.

It is an area where there are many families and older people and it also affects my own home and my own family. We cannot give people clarity until we have clarity ourselves and, once we have that, we will provide it.

The Taoiseach might ask the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Murphy, to meet Irish Water.

The way it works is that the risk to health is low but a boil water notice cannot be lifted until there are three clear samples. Even though the water may well be safe to drink, three clear samples must go to a laboratory to prove that before the boil water notice can be lifted.

My understanding is the Leixlip plant is operated by Fingal County Council and, therefore, is not privately operated, but that may be incorrect so I will come back to the Deputy on that.

That is incorrect.

An EPA audit was done back in March. I do not know if there is any connection between that and this incident but there were five main findings on that occasion and Irish Water and Fingal County Council have responded to those audit findings.

I thank the Taoiseach. He is correct that this issue affects my constituency and my home as well as the Taoiseach's home and those of many others. People need reassurances on two levels. It is not good enough to say, "This boil water notice will be lifted some time but we cannot specify when". I agree that there must be an interaction with Irish Water and some clearer information delivered.

A bigger assurance than that is required. We need to know whether the latest incident is the same as, or related to, the incident last March. I have the EPA's audit report from that time, the Ceann Comhairle will be pleased to hear. Last March, there was a pump failure which resulted in a temporary loss of the cryptosporidium barrier at the plant. I want to know whether that is what happened this time. I also want the Taoiseach to investigate and satisfy himself that the plant at Leixlip and the contract, which is a private contract, is reliable and fit for purpose to protect the water supply to these 600,000 homes and many more.

I do not know if there is any connection between the audit in March and this incident but we will certainly find that out for the Deputy and, once I know, I will pass on the information.

I was also truly shocked and saddened at the emerging news of 39 deaths in a container that may have passed through this country and that is certainly an issue to which we must revert as soon as we have more information.

In less than 48 hours, 820 good jobs have been lost in the south west between the 320 jobs at Novartis pharmaceutical company and 500 jobs at Molex electronic components company. This will leave workers and their families in a terrible situation coming up to Christmas. It will also have a significant knock-on effect on the local economies.

International trade is currently in a downturn due to increased protectionism and a move away from free trade. Locals have rightly asked the Government what it will do to support the workers now being unemployed. It will be a real test of the ability of the State and its agencies to react to major job losses. Unfortunately, there is still a risk of major job losses with an adverse Brexit. We will be looking closely at how the Government and its agencies cope with Novartis and Molex workers to see how successfully they will be assisted back to work and how problems in those regions can be addressed.

I want to ask the Taoiseach about the Government's analysis of the economy. The trade war between the United States and China is named as one of the factors that affected Molex, which has laid off workers around the world due to additional tariffs being imposed. It is extremely worrying that 820 job losses could come out of the blue, unknown to the IDA or the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation. Is this just unfortunate timing or are other jobs at risk right now? What research has been done by the Government to understand the effects of changes to international trade on jobs in Ireland? Can the Taoiseach assure other workers in similar jobs that their positions are stable?

There have been some estimates of job losses following a no-deal Brexit but does the Government have any estimate of job losses due to protectionism, the ongoing trade war and the higher tariffs being imposed on products made in this country? The World Trade Organization, WTO, permitted the US to impose €6.8 billion of tariffs on European goods at the beginning of this month. Food and drink products, including household names like Kerrygold and Baileys, now face a 25% tariff in the US. What analysis has the Government done about how this hostile trading environment will translate into potential job losses in this State and what is the Taoiseach going to do about it?

I thank the Deputy and join with him in expressing my regret at the news that jobs are to be lost at Molex in Shannon and Novartis in Cork. These are not connected. One is a pharmaceutical company and the other is in manufacturing and while the IDA had some advance notice that there may be issues with Novartis, there was no prior awareness of job losses at Molex. This will be a big blow to both regions, Cork and the mid-west, and our thoughts are very much with the staff today, particularly as we begin the run-in to Christmas.

We have become so used to big job announcements that it is sometimes easy to forget that jobs can also be lost but that can happen, and that has happened in these cases. On a somewhat reassuring note, the jobs are not to be lost immediately and will be phased over a two-year period, through 2020 and 2021. That will give people who do not take up early retirement the opportunity to find alternative employment, of which there is much in those regions.

It will also give us and the IDA an opportunity, perhaps, to get a new investor or owner to come into Molex, in particular, and replace the jobs.

The Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Humphreys, has cancelled events so as to travel to Shannon this morning, where she is convening a meeting of the enterprise agencies, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, members of the regional enterprise plan committee, the Shannon Chamber of Commerce, the local authority and other local stakeholders. The purpose of the meeting is to discuss how we can all work together, collectively across Government, State agencies and the private sector, to transition workers to new positions between now and the end of 2020, and what steps we can take to find a new investor for the Molex site. I want to assure the House that the Government will make every assistance available to the impacted employees in both companies. That includes benefits such as jobseeker's benefit, the back-to-education allowance for those who may go back to education, the back-to-enterprise allowance for those who may wish to set up their own business, as well as training opportunities and advice on redundancy entitlements and so on. All of that will be done.

I appreciate there have been calls for a task force. However, we already have a regional enterprise plan steering committee, which will be able to take on the role that a task force would have taken on in the past. We have done specific research on the impact of the recent US tariffs on EU trade and Ireland. I read it only a few days ago and I am not sure whether I am in a position to share it but if we are, we certainly will. When it comes to the US trade war, that is much harder to predict because we do not know yet the extent of it, what any tariffs will be or when or how it will end. It is a statement of the obvious, to which almost everyone in the House will agree, that free trade makes everyone better off in the round. It creates jobs and wealth and when there are restrictions on free trade through protectionism, it is not good for jobs or wealth. That is why it has always been the Government's position to be supportive of free trade, which we do, particularly, through our membership of the European Union and the trade deals the European Union makes.

I am sure the Taoiseach will acknowledge that many people were surprised by the lack of awareness, of both the Department and the IDA in respect of the announcement of the job losses. In Novartis's case, we understand it has been an ongoing consideration for a year. Has the Taoiseach ruled out the notion of a task force or will he reclassify an existing body as a task force to deal with this, as has been done in the past? Will he confirm that the workers will have access to the European Globalisation Adjustment Fund, EGF, as happened in previous cases of significant job losses?

On the lack of awareness, the Taoiseach might recall I raised several times the need to have direct dialogue on an enterprise-by-enterprise basis on the impact of Brexit. I have had discussions with a number of enterprises that have started short-term working or reduced overtime because of Brexit. I refer not only to enterprises in the agrifood and tourism areas but also those in manufacturing. We need to have enterprise-by-enterprise analysis in order that we will not be taken by surprise at shocks such as the announcement yesterday. Will that be done?

We have standing regional enterprise plan steering committees, which are made up of Enterprise Ireland, the IDA, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, the local authority, the universities and the local enterprise offices, as well as local stakeholders. They are exactly the same people one would call together to be on a task force and it is now a standing arrangement. I am not ruling out creating a task force but I would argue we have one already, and the regional enterprise plan steering committee can take on the role.

I do not know if Molex meets the criteria for the globalisation fund and we will have to check that out. If it does, we can certainly make an application, while if it does not, we cannot, but that can be checked out without any undue delay. Enterprise Ireland and the IDA already have direct contact with their various client companies and engage with them regularly on what the impacts of Brexit or trade movements would be.

Why are people surprised?

Companies do not always give advance notice. They have their own commercial reasons for not doing so.

Where is the early warning system?

It is regrettable that I have to stand here again today and talk about a crisis in the health services in Galway, and particularly at University Hospital Galway, UHG. It is consistently one of the worst hospitals in the country in respect of the number of people who have to spend a night on trolleys. It has got so bad that older people, in particular, are genuinely afraid to go to hospital, knowing about the indignities that await them in what is supposed to be the west's flagship facility. Over the past three weeks alone, almost 600 sick or injured, worried and vulnerable people have been left lying on trolleys overnight at UHG, and that does not include weekends. In the first six months of this year, 2,391 people spent more than 24 hours in the UHG emergency department. Shamefully, more than 850 of them were aged 75 or older, distressed and fearful, having to endure a full 24 hours and more lying on a trolley in the corridors of the emergency department.

It is scandalous that such a fear should exist in this day and age. I have put forward solutions in the House in the past, to both the Taoiseach and his predecessor, Deputy Enda Kenny. One solution is to locate a minor injuries unit at Merlin Park hospital on the eastern side of the city. It could take up to 60% of the people currently attending the severely overcrowded emergency department at UHG and deal with them in a fraction of the time it takes now. Not only would that greatly benefit more seriously ill patients, who would be seen sooner, but it would make the department a joy to work in for those staff who are under such stress at present. Eleven such injury units are dotted around the country. I visited the one in County Roscommon, where people are seen, treated and are out the door in less than an hour on average. Why is there not one in Galway? When I raised the matter with the Taoiseach in the House previously, he replied that it was a good idea and indicated he would look into it but I have heard nothing from him since. Why does it take so long to get a new emergency department built? The last I heard is that it will be another five years or more.

In the case of health investment, as I pointed out in respect of sports capital grants some time ago, it seems the west will always be the poor relation. Another example is the delay in replacing operating theatres at Merlin Park hospital, which has resulted in a significant spike in the waiting lists for orthopaedic treatment, since leaks were discovered in the roofs of the old theatres a full two years ago. A sum of €400,000 is needed immediately to finish design and start groundworks on a new modular theatre building, while €9 million will be needed next year to complete the project at Merlin Park hospital. Will the Taoiseach give a firm commitment that money will be allocated and ring-fenced to complete the urgent project? Will he give a commitment to speeding up the provision of a new emergency department at UHG? I also want his commitment to getting the ball rolling with the establishment of a minor injuries unit at Merlin Park hospital.

I thank the Deputy for raising the issue of health services in Galway again. It is very much acknowledged by the Government that Galway requires additional capacity when it comes to our health service. It is a growing city and county, and UHG is the medical centre of excellence for the western and Connacht region. Over the past couple of years, there has been very significant investment in the hospital. The budget has increased for the past three or four years in a row, there are additional staff and there is also additional bed capacity. A new 75-bed ward block opened last year, which provides 75 en suite single rooms for patients who need them, including six isolation rooms. That has resulted in a significant improvement in bed quality and infection control at the hospital.

The next development at the hospital will be the new radiation oncology unit and the enabling works for that have started. In addition, plans are now afoot for another new block, which will house the emergency department and the maternity and paediatric unit. There are also plans, unfortunately stalled, for a new hospice in the region, with which the Deputy is very familiar. It did not get planning permission but a new planning application is being developed. Planning permission has been secured for a new 50-bed block at Portiuncula Hospital. That will go ahead and, hopefully, it will relieve some pressure on the hospital.

On the minor injuries unit at Merlin Park hospital, the Deputy raised the matter previously. I said I thought it was a good idea and I still think it is a good idea. It would not have any impact on trolleys but would mean that people attending with minor injuries would be seen more quickly. There would be fewer people in the department, therefore, but it would not impact on trolleys in itself. It is still a good idea, notwithstanding that. There is such a unit in Cork in the old orthopaedic hospital, where people who have a minor injury can be seen within an hour or two rather than joining a long wait at Cork University Hospital, and there are ones in Smithfield and Loughlinstown in Dublin. Where they exist, they work well. Given that Galway is a major population centre, it seems to be an obvious place to have a minor injuries unit.

I understand a nationwide review of minor injuries units and medical assessment units is under way. That was a commitment in the programme for Government. The Minister is waiting on an update, which he will pass on to the Deputy when he has it.

The position on the emergency department and maternity and paediatric block is as follows: the service scope for all floors has now been agreed; the enabling works packages have been defined along with specific programmes for delivering them; further work is expected to be completed in the coming weeks so that the project can progress to stage 2 of design; and then a submission will be made to An Bord Pleanála with a view to it being considered as a strategic infrastructure development so that it can go through fast-track planning. If it can do so, a formal planning application will be made right after that.

I thank the Taoiseach for his response. I want to outline the following facts to the House: in the two years since leaks were discovered in the roof of the operating theatre in Merlin Park Hospital, the number of people waiting for orthopaedic treatment in Galway has increased by 42% while the numbers in hospitals in the rest of the country have reduced; the number of people waiting for major orthopaedic operations in Galway has almost doubled; it is up by 86%; and last month, more than 500 posts remained unfilled in hospitals in the Saolta group stretching from Donegal to Galway, waiting for sanction by HSE headquarters through which all approvals must go. This is contributing to the increase in waiting lists in hospitals in the group which has grown by 11% or more than 10,000 people in the past year.

As the Taoiseach correctly said, there are 11 minor injuries units in Ireland, but there is none in Galway, even though three quarters of the 66,000 patients presenting each year at the emergency department in University Hospital Galway are discharged without the need for hospital admission and would be ideal candidates for such a fast-track treatment unit.

These facts speak for themselves. I ask the Taoiseach to put pressure on the Department of Health and the HSE to ensure that the new emergency department and theatres in Merlin Park are built without delay. This is the third time the Taoiseach has said that the minor injuries unit is a good idea, but he has done nothing about it. Such a facility is needed in Galway and in Merlin Park. Why is Galway the only county without such a facility? I ask the Taoiseach to personally take this on with the Minister for Health to ensure that Galway also gets one.

The Deputy has my absolute assurance that I will continue to put pressure on the Department of Health and the HSE on these issues. Galway needs this investment. It has had investment recently with the new 75-bed block.

If only Deputy Grealish were the Taoiseach-----

The radiation oncology centre is now under construction but it needs the new emergency department and maternity and paediatric block. I will put pressure on the Department and the HSE to get that done. The money is available, but we need to get it through the planning process, get it to tender and get it built.

On orthopaedics, as the Deputy has rightly pointed out, throughout the country we have had a very significant improvement in waiting times-----

Not in Galway though.

-----for people waiting for hip replacements, knee replacements and orthopaedic procedures. For example, in July 2017, more than 2,500 people had been waiting for more than 12 weeks for a hip or knee replacement. That has been reduced by half to 1,300.

They were done mostly across the Border.

That is the cross-border initiative.

We have had real success in reducing waiting times for people who need an operation or procedure.

There is a traffic jam of people going across the Border.

The Taoiseach without interruption.

When I became Taoiseach, just over 50,000 people were waiting more than 12 weeks for an operation. That is now down to thirty-something thousand, so it is an area where we are making a lot of progress.