Ceisteanna - Questions

Economic Policy

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach the progress of his plans for a high-level review of the economy to be led by his Department. [41491/20]

Paul Murphy

Ceist:

2. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach the progress of his plans for a high-level review of the economy to be led by his Department. [43141/20]

Paul Murphy

Ceist:

3. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if his Department has convened the well-being expert group as committed to in the programme for Government. [43143/20]

Alan Kelly

Ceist:

4. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach the progress of his plans for a high-level review of the economy to be led by his Department. [43179/20]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

5. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach the progress of his plans for a high-level review of the economy to be led by his Department. [43544/20]

Mick Barry

Ceist:

6. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach the progress of his plans for a high-level review of the economy to be led by his Department. [43555/20]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 6, inclusive, together.

The Government will shortly publish the national economic plan, a high-level framework setting out the Government’s priorities for a jobs-led sustainable and inclusive recovery. The plan will build upon commitments in the programme for Government relating to a high-level review of the economy and the development of a well-being framework. The plan will reflect our priorities for how the economy can best recover in the next few years, including for sectors worst affected by the pandemic, and will build on relevant sectoral reviews and reports. There is a recognised need for more comprehensive and holistic tools to better assess well-being and progress. To this end, the Government is committed to developing a comprehensive well-being framework to allow a more rounded view of national progress. In developing this framework, the Government will build on national work to date and best international approaches, including recently published research by the Department of Finance, and will also engage in external consultation. The overall approach to the plan will be based on a number of key themes: building resilience across enterprise and sectors; an inclusive and regionally balanced recovery; and future-proofing our environment and economy. This approach will be supported by the two core principles of maintaining sustainable and credible public finances and supporting strategic investment to boost jobs and growth.

I note the Government decision to postpone the scheduled Dáil vote on the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement, CETA, between Canada and the EU. Shoehorning the vote into this week's Dáil schedule was wrong, as was any attempt to use Brexit to justify rushing a motion through. After the Seanad rejected CETA in October 2016, the previous Government consistently set its face against a robust debate on this controversial deal. We had hoped that the Taoiseach would take a different tack and that a thorough analysis would be carried out on CETA before it was brought to the floor of the Dáil for discussion. Members of the current and previous Governments have sought to present the significant concerns raised across Europe as isolationist or anti-free trade. That opinion is not just reckless; it is lazy and does a massive disservice to citizens across the EU who are committed to peace, free trade, the upholding of employment rights and our shared responsibility to protect the environment. The Government needs to engage on the substantive issues of concern and to respond to them in depth. The investment court system is a massive problem for all member states. It is a repackaging of the investor-state dispute settlement scheme. On that basis, it is alarming that the current and former Governments have worked so hard to avoid a proper debate on this deal. Will the Taoiseach deliver a full impact assessment of the investment court system and CETA's non-tariff barriers in advance of a future Dáil debate on Ireland's ratification of this deal?

The Taoiseach's attempt to ram through the CETA deal this week has been pushed back but it is reported that he will try again in January to drive through what is bad deal for workers and the climate and a charter for billionaires and big businesses. This is a deal that gives corporations the right to sue states in a parallel justice system, which only corporations and investors can access, if governments and states take actions which impede their potential profits. I will give just three examples out of approximately 1,000 investor-state cases worldwide involving Canadian companies. Eco Oro is suing the Colombian Government for almost $1 billion for interfering with its mining rights, a different Canadian mining company is suing Romania for almost $6 billion for interfering with its mining rights and yet another corporation is suing Croatia for removing its illegal permits given for a golf course. How on earth can the Taoiseach stand over handing over more power to corporations which engage, in the words of Joseph Stiglitz, in "litigation terrorism"? The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, was right in 2017 when he said it is wrong that this exact same deal provides for a dispute resolution mechanism under which corporations have power over governments and over our courts. Does the Taoiseach agree with what the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, said then or does he agree with him now? The Minister has not explained his change of position or his apparent support for CETA now.

Today is day 250 of the Debenhams dispute. Almost 1,000 workers, most of whom are women, and their families have suffered terrible hardship. They have endured a long battle for a just and fair redundancy and still, in the teeth of Christmas, they remain out protesting. I heard the Taoiseach's response to Deputy Barry earlier. He spoke about not engaging in a blame game. I want to be very clear that this Government and the previous Fine Gael-Labour Party Government have a responsibility for the failure to legislate after Clerys. Anyone who has been in government since Clerys has a responsibility, not just to implement the Duffy Cahill Report but to address all of the issues that can leave a group of workers like the Debenhams workers in a situation where they do not get a just and fair redundancy. That failure puts a responsibility on the Taoiseach to sort it out, which he has not done, and to ensure a just redundancy for them.

I was on the phone to the Arcadia workers this week. They number approximately 470 and are employed in Topshop, Miss Selfridge, Burton and other outlets where liquidation is under way. They could find themselves in the same situation as the Debenhams workers. It is the Government's responsibility to ensure workers do not find themselves in that situation. The Taoiseach must take responsibility for the collective failure of governments to prevent this from happening in the first place.

The Government is currently reviewing the travel and accommodation allowance for student nurses and midwives. I want to remind him that the allowance was introduced in 2004 at a maximum of €50.79 per week. Sixteen years on, it still stands at €50.79 per week. It has not increased by one single penny in 16 years. I am sure the price of travel has gone up quite a bit in 16 years and I am absolutely certain that the price of rent has increased. Would the Taoiseach agree that the fact that this allowance has been frozen for 16 years is yet another sign of a massive underappreciation of the role of student nurses and midwives by the political establishment? Would he further agree that any rise in this allowance must now be major rather than minor?

A debate on CETA was initiated by Fianna Fáil in the last Dáil. Indeed, we initiated it in our own Private Members' time. I have always been in favour of debate on the Canada-EU free trade agreement. I believe in trade. The decisions of Seán Lemass in the 1960s led to the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement in 1965, which removed tariffs and quotas on trade with Britain. That was a precursor to Ireland joining the European Union. Seán Lemass was way ahead of his time, as was Fianna Fáil, while many other parties objected to joining the then EEC. We have the same old continuation of some of the residual legacy arguments from that time. I have heard very few pro-trade contributions in this House in recent years. As a former Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, I know that trade is the esprit de corps of our economy.

The owners of many small and medium-sized companies depend on trade to create jobs and to add value to those companies. Those in the SME sector were very happy with the Canada-European Union free trade deal. They saw it as a positive move that would help them sell more of their software, healthcare solutions, water products and so on. We have a very exciting entrepreneurial sector in Ireland that depends on exporting its goods and services abroad. With regard to creating jobs, the more of these agreements we have, the better.

People talk about corporations having too much power under CETA. Corporations in Ireland employ hundreds of thousands of people. I never hear Deputies Paul Murphy, Barry or Boyd Barrett say that. That debate needs to happen. No one was trying to ram any debate through the House. Sinn Féin sought an extra ten minutes. That was its contribution. It was happy with an extra ten minutes. Now that this political situation has arisen, it may feel it can create the impression that we are trying to ram something through, which we are not. This agreement has been in place provisionally for the last three years. It is actually operational.

The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, has correctly pointed out that the agreement has changed. The Court of Justice of the European Union, CJEU, in its opinion 1/17, dealt with the question of whether CETA's reformed investment rules comply with certain fundamental principles of European law, such as autonomy. In a nutshell, the court held that CETA's chapter on investment is fully compatible with European law and the treaties, including the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.

That does not mean it is right.

It is the Commission's contention that the chapter of CETA on investment fully guarantees the protection of public interest measures from challenges by investors. One of the concerns raised in that case was whether CETA was compatible with the principle of equality before the law under Article 20 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and the principle of non-discrimination on the grounds of nationality. In this regard the CJEU reiterated its previous ruling that treaties concluded by the European Union must be compatible with fundamental rights, including those found in the charter. The CJEU also held that the CETA tribunal would have no jurisdiction to interpret or apply rules of European Union law other than the provisions of CETA itself. Furthermore, the tribunal may not challenge choices democratically made within Canada or the European Union regarding the level of protection afforded to public order, public safety, public morals or the health and life of humans and animals, the preservation of food safety, the protection of plants and the environment, welfare at work, product safety, consumer protection or any equally fundamental rights. Those are the facts with regard to CETA and the permanent investment court, which now consists of ten judges. This difference from the original agreement has not been acknowledged in the contributions thus far. The CETA tribunal has no jurisdiction to declare incompatible with the agreement the level of protection of a public interest established by European Union measures. That should lay to rest any of the assertions made in this regard. There remains the issue of our economy. How is the Irish economy to develop into the future if we do not have export opportunities and if we do not conclude agreements with other countries?

We do not have to sign up to investor-state dispute settlement measures to do so.

This does not endanger, in any way, the environment or any public interest measures or other measures we take. I have just returned from a meeting of the European Council at which the highest ever level of ambition with regard to the environment was agreed by all member states.

What would the Taoiseach say to investors who sue the Irish State?

It was agreed that greenhouse gas emissions would be cut by 55% by 2030 and that the EU would be carbon neutral by 2050. That is the European Union's agenda with regard to climate change. How, in the name of God, can CETA undermine that? It cannot and it will not.

The Taoiseach does not even know what it stands for.

The only challenge we have within the European Union is the reluctance of some member states to be as fully engaged in action on climate change as others. This will be required if we are to achieve the goals to which we have all agreed. In this debate, I have heard the same points I hear on an ongoing basis. No one ever debates the merits. I am not clear on the economic model the Deputies would apply to Ireland but it is a fair assessment that they are against multinationals. That is fair enough; they are entitled to take that position. These multinationals, however, employ hundreds of thousands of people in Ireland. The Deputies do not seem to care about the small and medium-sized enterprises that need markets overseas to create jobs, particularly in regional Ireland. I do not know where they think we will create jobs in the future or who is going to create them. I do not know what economic model they are proposing. I believe they would create enormous destruction in the area of employment if their policies were to be adopted.

I dealt with the Debenhams dispute earlier in a reply to Deputy Barry. On Deputy Boyd Barrett's point on that issue, we will do what we can but the State has a number of responses it can make with regard to liquidations. These include statutory redundancy, helping the workers to secure alternative employment in any way we can and providing and financing programmes and courses to allow workers to gain additional skills to enable them to get work in other areas, if possible. A significant degree of resources is provided by Government in that regard.

Departmental Functions

Rose Conway-Walsh

Ceist:

7. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Taoiseach if he will consider a review of the appraisal processes used in decision making to ensure better balanced regional development and greater transparency across the appraisal and decision-making process. [41617/20]

Alan Kelly

Ceist:

8. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the economic division of his Department. [41651/20]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 7 and 8 together.

The economic division of my Department assists me and the Government in developing and implementing policies across relevant areas, including the areas of economic growth, job creation, infrastructure, housing, climate action and social dialogue. This work is focused in particular on the delivery of commitments in the programme for Government, for example, the development of a new national economic plan, as well as on co-ordination on issues which cut across multiple Departments.

The economic division supports the work of the Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment, the Cabinet committee on housing and the Cabinet committee on the environment and climate change. The remit of the Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment includes oversight of infrastructure development and Project Ireland 2040. This promotes balanced regional development in line with the national planning framework through capital investment across all parts of the country. Following an extensive consultation process, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform updated the capital requirements of the public spending code in 2019 to ensure best practice in project appraisal and decision-making at all stages of the expenditure life cycle of capital projects. The code supports transparency through the publication of business cases and evaluation reports on public investment projects and programmes.

The economic division of my Department also leads Ireland's participation in the annual European semester process, liaises with the Central Statistics Office, prepares the national risk assessment and provides me with briefing and speech material on economic and related policy issues. In addition, the division jointly leads work on preparedness for Brexit, along with the Department of Foreign Affairs and other divisions of my Department.

Covid-19 and Brexit have served to bring to the forefront the need to address the stark regional imbalance and overpopulation of Dublin and our major cities. We must provide the infrastructure necessary to enable people to live and work in rural Ireland. The fact is that the criteria used for cost-benefit analyses on major projects mitigates against investment in regions. I ask the Taoiseach and the Government to change this. Investment decisions must be guided by clear strategic objectives, giving weight to factors that can bring transformational change. We must achieve greater transparency in how decisions are taken. Departments must work effectively and efficiently together in congruence with local communities to achieve faster and better outcomes.

We need to move away from decisions being made by audit companies that do not have skin in the game. Relying wholly on analysis from auditors which use narrow monetary measures, often based on population rather than the requirement for transformational change, impedes potential growth. There are often benefits to projects that require capital investment that can only be monetised with difficulty, if at all. Too often, these projects are dismissed at an early stage in the appraisal process or are delayed for years or even decades. We have a legal requirement to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. There are great opportunities for growth in the green economy along the western seaboard to meet these climate obligations.

We must maximise on the potential of the Atlantic economic corridor with sustainable investment in the western rail corridor, the strategic development zone at Knock airport, roads such as the R312, the A5 and the A26 and other vital infrastructure. Covid has taught us that we cannot continue with business as usual. I ask the Taoiseach to change the criteria for the cost-benefit analysis.

I will continue the earlier discussion. The welfare of workers is an economic question and an economic imperative. I refer to the Taoiseach's response on Debenhams and the possibility of another such situation unfolding with the Arcadia workers who, I believe, will be protesting outside Leinster House early next week. Unless Arcadia is bought out, it is also facing liquidation and the possibility that the two-plus-two contractual agreement the workers had with the Arcadia group will disappear and they will be looking for statutory redundancy from the State.

We would not be in this situation if the Government had realised after what happened with Clerys, Vita Cortex and La Senza that this stuff had to stop and that workers could not be left at the bottom of the queue when it comes to the distribution of assets of companies that go into liquidation. Honouring redundancy arrangements and just entitlement for people who have worked for years is an imperative for Government. The Government has failed to do that - not primarily this Government, as it happens, but the Fine Gael-Labour Party Government. However, Fianna Fáil is now in government and the Taoiseach has a responsibility. He should say that this Government will sort it out because Government should have sorted it out, and then it will address the situation going forward to ensure it does not happen again.

I agree with the points made about the Debenhams workers and the need for workers who are owed redundancy payments to be given the status of preferential creditors in the event of a liquidation. It needs to get done. Kicking this can down the road with a promise of a review of company law, which seems interminable is certainly not the answer for workers who are now facing into Christmas in the most difficult of circumstances.

I was fascinated by the Taoiseach's response about the removal of the motion on CETA from the Dáil schedule. It was removed, one presumes, because of the need for a more thorough and full debate. I assume the State has carried out a full impact assessment of the investment court system and CETA's non-tariff barriers and that due diligence has been done. I asked the Taoiseach if that would be made available to us in advance of a full Dáil debate on the matter and he pointedly failed to answer that question. I ask it again in hope and anticipation of an actual answer this time.

Deputy Conway-Walsh asked the question in the first instance. The cost-benefit analysis is a very involved piece of work and it is not a simple matter to change the criteria overnight to suit particular projects or schemes. We need to apply rigorous criteria to public projects and initiatives to ensure we get value for money. The State cannot keep on allocating resources to particular projects just because people like the projects and think it is a good idea. We need rigorous assessment of projects in that regard.

The Government's climate programme is very ambitious. We have taken steps in the July stimulus and the budget with the national retrofitting programme, for example, which we started through the just transition fund, which is funded from the carbon tax and the National Oil Reserves Agency, NORA, fund as well. That has been allocated to the midlands and parts of the west to create new job opportunities. The midlands area has taken the brunt of decisions on climate change with the closure of peat plants and so on. We would like to see that retrofitting replicated across the regions, particularly in rural areas.

Regarding climate change, offshore wind energy is another area that offers us opportunities. Various ports in the country could become important centres for assembling offshore wind turbines and their servicing. All of that is important in addressing regional economic imbalance between Dublin and the rest of the country, as the Deputy outlined. Later this week we will be announcing a review of the all-island rail approach also involving the west as a way of creating economic levers in the regions.

We also believe afforestation has a role to play in creating jobs in the regions.

I completely understand that, but I am asking for a review of it, similar to what was done in Britain with the green book.

The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform continues to review, but there is no plan for a major review of the criteria. However, I will engage with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform on the issues the Deputy has raised. She raised all these issues of regional imbalance which I was keen to address along with net zero carbon emissions. She mentioned the western rail corridor. Two assessments of the costs and the value for money have come in on that. They will be published on the website. In the meantime, the Minister will engage in an all-island rail review in collaboration with the Northern authorities to see how we can make best use of the public transport system and rail in particular to help rebalance the economic development of the country.

Deputies mentioned the Debenhams and Arcadia workers. The State, through taxpayers' funds and through the Social Insurance Fund, is the one actor in all of this that has stood the test of time and has never failed to come forward to support workers through statutory redundancy. The State has paid out millions of euro in terms of Debenhams. Whatever system is devised cannot allow rogue employers get it away with it either. The Clerys model would not apply to Debenhams or to Arcadia. There were different issues there.

The employers have responsibility and the State cannot pick up the pieces for all sorts of employers who may or may not do things. Some employers legitimately go into liquidation because of market conditions, and in some cases a liquidation may not be anybody's fault and may be because of changing economic circumstances and what is happening in the market. The retail sector is going through a rough time. The combination of the Covid lockdowns and the growth of online trading is having an impact on in-store trading, which is the challenge facing us on the months and years ahead. I hope the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment will have the review of company law completed shortly and certainly in advance of the next Dáil session.

On the full impact assessment of CETA, the removal of non-tariff barriers will have benefits because it creates opportunities for Irish companies to gain easier access to the Canadian market and vice versa. Countries are queuing up to have a trading relationship with the European Union.

No one questions a Japan deal, for example. Australia wants to conclude a deal with the European Union because it sees the benefits of having access to such a large market, with good rigour and high standards and the certainty and stability that the European Union market offers to those partners that wish to trade with it. Likewise, in respect of the debate, we have no issue outlining all those assessments and impacts in the context of such a deal.

I find it interesting, however, that the Deputy's, Sinn Féin's and the far left's position is one of antagonism and antipathy towards trade deals more generally. This is something which has gone on for years. Rarely, and I speak as someone who believes in-----

Unfair environmental trade.

No, I speak as someone who believes in enterprise, trade and in creating jobs. It is the tradition I have come from, as well as that of strong investment in public services, by the way. I was reminded of that when watching the speech made by Seán Lemass in 1965 regarding removing trade barriers. He could see ahead, and that being a precursor to joining the Common Market. He was predicting then that Ireland would do so, some seven or eight years beforehand. That is the kind of vision which is required, and not this consistent undermining of anybody involved in enterprise, which is the order of the day from some Deputies in the House.

Covid-19 Pandemic

Alan Kelly

Ceist:

9. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the establishment of the high-level task force on Covid-19 vaccination. [41648/20]

Paul Murphy

Ceist:

10. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach the person or body that represented his Department at the first meeting of the high-level task force on Covid-19 vaccination. [41722/20]

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

11. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the high-level task force on Covid-19 vaccination, which includes representatives from his Department. [43140/20]

Mick Barry

Ceist:

12. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the establishment of the high-level task force on Covid-19 vaccination. [43556/20]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 9 to 12, inclusive, together.

The Government established the high-level task force on Covid-19 vaccination to ensure the requisite oversight, agility and specialist input is available to support the HSE and the Department of Health in the effective, efficient and agile delivery of the Covid-19 vaccination programme. The task force, chaired by Professor Brian MacCraith, has met three times to date, most recently on Monday, 7 December. The agreed terms of reference for the task force are: to support the Department of Health and the HSE to deliver a Covid-19 immunisation programme that meets best practice and provides good governance as a critical public health intervention in the prevention and control of Covid-19; working with the Department of Health and HSE to develop a national Covid-19 vaccination strategy and implementation plan for the safe, effective and efficient procurement, distribution, delivery and recording of Covid-19 vaccines, when approved vaccines are ready to be distributed; to provide a focal point for engagements with sectoral and specialist expertise as may be needed to support the development, implementation and agile iteration of the strategy and plan; and to monitor progress and report to Government, as may be required, on the development and implementation of the strategy and plan.

The task force includes senior representatives from across the Department of Health, the HSE, the Health Products Regulatory Authority, HPRA, the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer, the Office of Government Procurement, IDA Ireland, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Department of the Taoiseach, as well as expertise in the areas of public health, supply chain logistics, cold chain logistics, and programme management. The chair of the senior officials' group on Covid-19 represents my Department on the task force.

When the task force was established in mid-November, significant work was already ongoing on planning for this vaccination programme and governance in place across the HSE and the Department of Health. Under the co-ordination of the task force, this has all been brought together under a single integrated work programme utilising the wide range of relevant and high-level expertise and experience of task force members. The HSE has ultimate responsibility for the delivery of the Covid-19 vaccination programme, through its National Immunisation Office, NIO, which designs and implements all vaccination programmes in Ireland.

The task force has prepared drafts of Ireland’s national Covid-19 vaccination programme strategy and accompanying implementation plan. The Minister for Health brought these to Government this morning and both documents were approved by Government. The strategy document is designed to be a comprehensive framework establishing clear objectives and principles. It identifies the pathways for managing a programme of this scale. The implementation plan is designed to be a living document, in that it needs to be agile, flexible and capable of evolving over time, for example, to accommodate vaccines with differing characteristics or to respond to lessons learned in our local experience or internationally.

It describes the logistical, operational and human resource requirements for Ireland to begin vaccinations in line with Government guidance in early 2021 - and it could be sooner now - assuming the approval of one or more safe and effective Covid-19 vaccines for use. The strategy and implementation plans are being published today on www.gov.ie. The task force is committed to the ongoing oversight and monitoring of the vaccination programme and will update and revise the implementation plan as required to serve the overall goals of the programme.

It is clear that it will be many months, and perhaps six months or more, before we will have a full roll-out of the vaccine across the country, which will obviously be enormously welcome. There will, however, be a significant time remaining where social distancing, ventilation and handwashing and a strategy based on investment in testing and tracing, etc., will be necessary to minimise and, if possible, eliminate community transmission. In that context, I ask the Taoiseach about the increased number of cases of Covid-19. I think we are on a worrying trajectory towards having 500 cases, or more, a day by the time Christmas arrives. It could put Christmas family visits at risk or pose the need, unfortunately, for another lockdown in January.

That is a consequence of the decision the Government made to, in the words of the Taoiseach, take a more conservative approach on the household visits, and then trade that off with visits to hotels and restaurants. It is increasingly clear that the decision to prioritise the reopening of gastropubs was the wrong choice. Will the Taoiseach reverse that decision to protect family visits at Christmas?

I also raise the situation which developed at a school in Claremorris in Mayo. It is utterly shocking. Some 10% of the students had Covid-19. The principal and the board of management took the decision to close the school, and were then ordered by the Department of Education to reopen and, in the words of the principal, to remain open at all costs. That principal is now considering his position. It is a reckless position from the Government. It should be supporting parents and students.

I commend the important work of the task force led by Professor Brian MacCraith. It is an arduous task and the entire nation is dependent on a positive outcome from it. The Taoiseach may be aware from representations to his office that there is a widespread concern that the Government decided not to recognise people with disabilities in the priority list of groups for vaccination published last week. This omission has caused widespread concern and, indeed, considerable hurt. People with disabilities repeatedly tell policy-makers and decision-makers that they feel invisible or ignored and that provisions in political decision-making are too often an afterthought. Their carers also feel ignored by Government in its plans for the roll out of the vaccine.

Down Syndrome Ireland has raised its concerns with all Teachtaí, and has highlighted the increased risk of hospitalisation and severe disease amongst adults with Down's syndrome. However, it seems that those concerns have been ignored. British research has found that people with Down's syndrome are five times more likely to be hospitalised and ten times more likely to die as a result of the virus. Additional research, also from Britain, shows that people with a learning disability are dying from Covid-19 at a much younger age than the general population. These are very concerning data. The Disability Federation of Ireland has urged the Government to prioritise people with disabilities to receive the vaccine, as has Family Carers Ireland. I urge the Taoiseach to do precisely that.

I have two basic questions. How many new staff will be required to roll out the vaccine? Will the vaccine be rolled out exclusively through the public system, or is it envisaged that contracts may be awarded to private companies to administer it?

As has been said, it is going to be many months before we can get the population vaccinated. Until then, and perhaps beyond, the front line against Covid-19 remains in our hospitals. I want to respond to the systematic misrepresentations on the Taoiseach's part of the issue concerning student nurses and midwives, arising from a motion which we tabled several weeks ago. Let us be clear what is at stake and try to address directly what the student nurses and midwives are asking for.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, they have been covering the gaps of many sick and infected healthcare workers and they should be paid for that. The situation has not changed because Covid-19 is still with us and it will remain with us for at least another six to eight months, if not longer. Will the Government simply pay them for that work? I ask that because they are doing that work, and all the denial in the world will not change that.

I refer to the ongoing situation.

I have not met one nurse who said student nurses' education was ever protected under the degree programme. What they say is that they have always worked. They want a degree programme, but they also want to be paid for the work they are doing and for the denial to end. By the way, if Government were to pay them for the work they are doing, that would protect their education because they would not have to be doing other work on the side when they are supposed to be studying. The Government should add to that by not imposing fees of €3,000 to €7,500 on them.

Deputy Murphy raised the issue of the decision to exit level 5. The people of Ireland were under level 5 for six weeks and, I think, adhered to it very well, to such an extent that Ireland has the lowest incidence of Covid-19 cases in Europe. That never gets acknowledged, but that happens to be a fact. On balance, I do not think we could have kept people under that level of restrictions for an indefinite period. That is my view. I also think those working in the hospitality sector, insofar as is possible, deserved an opportunity to go back to work too and that the employments in which they work would also have some prospect of a future in that their businesses would be kept intact. These three weeks are important in that regard for them in terms of getting people off the dole, having more work available and giving workers an opportunity to get a decent wage. That was part of the motivation, as was the mental well-being of our citizens and the protection of lives.

How many lives?

In terms of the impact of the second wave, our mortality rates compare favourably and are one of the best, if not the best, in Europe, and that is because of decisions taken by Government and by the people. There is a balance here and personal responsibility is extremely important as we move into the Christmas period. This is very difficult all round for people. It is difficult for societies to cope with a pandemic of this kind, which is upending their normal lives. The data are clear in terms of the spread of the virus from households. By the end of this week, we hope to be able to say to people working in Dublin or elsewhere that they may travel home to meet their families but to mind themselves and their families in terms of how they behave. They should act as if they have the virus, make sure they do not pass it on to somebody else, and keep their contacts to a minimum. Every contact matters. Personal behaviour and collective behaviour are essential requirements in terms of keeping the pressure on the virus. We have to work extremely hard at that.

I believe that non-essential retail and restaurants - not everywhere - did deserve an opportunity to try to keep their operations going as well. There is a balance here in terms of protecting lives. We have protected a lot of lives and saved a lot of lives - hundreds of lives in the second wave through our actions in the serial testing programme. We have a very strong testing programme now.

There is a balance between lives and what?

Livelihoods. Livelihoods matter as well as people's mental well-being.

A lot of people are very worried, stressed and anxious about their future because of Covid-19. We are trying to protect both lives and livelihoods. It is not a question of balancing the two. Protecting both is the objective.

The Taoiseach used the word "balance".

I have said repeatedly "protect both". In any event, the social distancing will be required. If we can get the vaccine into nursing homes initially and to healthcare front-line staff, that in itself will make a significant difference. We can then move on to the various sequencing.

I am, again, very disappointed in Deputy McDonald's comments and the very bitter and partisan political way she frames things. Government did not decide not to recognise people with disabilities in the roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccine programme. That is what the Deputy actually said, and it is a reprehensible thing to say. Government did not decide the sequencing. Public health experts decided the sequencing. The national immunisation advisory committee recommended on the sequencing, and NPHET endorsed that sequencing and made it clear that it is a live document. Does the Deputy not accept that?

The Taoiseach should answer the question.

I have answered it. It is not fair to be making assertions of that kind across the floor of the House.

I am sorry I hurt the Taoiseach sensitivities. I ask him to answer the question on people with disabilities.

Government does not go out of its way to deny anyone vaccination, least of all people with disabilities.

It does not do that and the Deputy should not suggest that it does, or assert that it does. That is what the Deputy said. I have no doubt that the public health expertise will engage with disability organisations in terms of the roll-out of the vaccine. In the first instance, it is being rolled out to the elderly and residents in nursing homes because they are the most vulnerable. The data from the first wave show that. We know what happened. There was serial testing in nursing homes to keep the pressure on the virus in nursing homes and likewise the vaccination. We will work with the Disability Federation of Ireland. Nobody is making premeditated decisions to deny anybody. We received the sequencing from the national immunisation advisory committee through NPHET.

It is important to say to every Member of the House that if we all start coming at this from different perspectives in terms of the order of prioritisation, we are going down a slippery slope towards the politicisation of this. I believe that, insofar as is possible, prioritisation should be the domain of public health expertise in terms of who the vaccine will help most in protecting illness and protecting people from dying. That is the motivation behind it.

What of the student nurses?

I dealt with the student nurses earlier. I say again that, in my view, a first-year student on a nine-week placement should not have to work a 13-hour roster. The clinical placement cannot be protected if a person is working flat out.

It has been pretty much happening for years.

That is not what the degree programme is about. Any employer - I need to be careful because a person's words get twisted all the time around here - any employer should not abuse student nurses in that situation.

Sitting suspended at 4.16 p.m. and resumed at 4.36 p.m.