Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 21 Jan 2021

Vol. 1003 No. 4

Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

Gabhaim buíochas a Leas-Cheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom ceisteanna a chur ar an Tánaiste i dtaobh an sceite eolais a rinne sé ón gconradh rúnda a bhí idir an IMO agus an Roinn Sláinte agus a thug sé dá chara. Mar gheall ar an eolas atá againn le cúpla lá anuas, tá a fhios againn anois go ndearna neamhaird ar an achainí a rinne an tAire Sláinte an t-am sin, an Teachta Simon Harris, chun cóip den chonradh seo a fháil. Ba é sin an tAire a bhí i gceannas na gcainteanna seo agus níor tugadh an conradh dó, ach ag an am céanna bhí an Tánaiste ag roinnt an chonartha lena chara san National Association of General Practitioners, NAGP. Tá níos mó ceisteanna le freagairt maidir lena chuid gníomhartha sa scannal seo.

In April 2019, the Tánaiste leaked a confidential document to a friend of his, the then head of the NAGP. This was the subject of controversy back in November 2020, when Village magazine broke the story. Last week I received correspondence following a request made under freedom of information. This was information that my party leader had requested for more than two months. It is little wonder that these documents were withheld from us for so long. They are damning, and the Tánaiste's defence of how he leaked the confidential document now lies in tatters.

It is a scandal that goes far deeper than what we once thought. The documents show that at the same time as the Tánaiste leaked this document, the line Minister responsible for the negotiations, Deputy Harris, was unable to obtain the contract from his officials. This is despite the Minister, Deputy Harris, telling the Dáil in November that he never requested a copy of the contract. He must explain his actions and he must correct the record of the Dáil.

Within the documents I received, there are repeated warnings from Department officials reiterating the confidentiality of the document and stating that it was still subject to negotiations with the IMO. On 25 April, a Department official noted: "Unilateral publication of the Agreement, in the absence of confirmation from the IMO that it is satisfied with the final text, would represent a serious breach of trust." By that stage, the Tánaiste had already leaked the document to his friend, the president of the NAGP. This action was counter to what was needed to get the deal across the line and would undermine the IMO. That is very clear. Publication of the contract by the NAGP, as its national council discussed, could have collapsed the negotiations and a contract worth €210 million.

However, the most shocking revelation is actually what is not contained in these documents. I must ask the Tánaiste again where he got the document which he gave to his friend in the NAGP. There are numerous emails from the then Minister, Deputy Harris, requesting the document from his adviser on 15 April, to demanding the document on 17 April, and there are emails from officials to his office and to him explaining why they were not giving him the document. However, there is no record of the Tánaiste seeking the document from the Department of Health or of the Department giving him the document. There is nothing: no emails, no notes, no cover notes and no messages. The Tánaiste already admitted in November to deleting his messages from Maitiú Ó Tuathail surrounding all of this, so there are no records there either.

The Tánaiste received a request for the document from Maitiú Ó Tuathail. He then got the document from the Department of Health, sent it to Maitiú Ó Tuathail, and there is no record of it anywhere. Is it not the case that the Tánaiste went to extreme lengths to cover his tracks in all of this? Why? It is because he knew the significance of all of this. The Office of An Taoiseach was used to pull a stroke for a friend.

I ask the Tánaiste to explain to the Dáil how he got this document. How did he get this document without a trace and with no records? Why did he tell the Dáil that there was nothing to see here, when his argument simply does not hold up? The contract was confidential. Negotiations were ongoing. Despite all of this, the Tánaiste leaked the document in full knowledge of the consequences. This was not part of a Government strategy, as he claimed. This was a stroke for a friend, plain and simple. Does the Tánaiste not agree?

I do not agree. These are the facts, and I am happy to restate them. It was not actually a contract; it was an agreement about a contract. I gave a copy of that agreement to Dr.Ó Tuathail, who was president of the NAGP at the time. I should not have done this. I accounted to the Dáil for it last November and I apologised for it. I acted on my own judgment and nobody is responsible for this, other than me - no officials, no advisers and not the Minister, Deputy Harris. I am sorry that I have brought them into this in any way.

The Deputy is trying to reheat an old political controversy today. He is largely going back over old ground. He could be talking about Covid, the battle against the virus and the pandemic. He could be asking about getting schools reopened. He could be asking about the economic crisis and the people who have lost their jobs and may lose their businesses. It says much about the Deputy's priorities as a person and those of his party that he is trying to go on this line of attack again, on an issue that was dealt with in November.

I made three public statements on the matter at the time and answered questions as best I could, based on my knowledge and recollection of events that happened two years ago. I can only answer for myself; I cannot answer for other people. It is up to the Deputy the either accept my explanations or reject them. It is his choice. However, the House heard about, and voted on, this last November.

For clarity, the document that I gave Dr. Ó Tuathail was the 3 April version. I got it from the Department of Health. I asked the Minister, Deputy Harris, for a version of it and he gave it to me. I did not retain that version. I then asked my special adviser, who looked after health issues, to get a copy of it again. She already had a copy. That is the copy that I gave Dr. Ó Tuathail. We released the document under a FOI request. The Deputy has that document. He knows the differences between that document and the final document, as published. Last November he went to the trouble of counting these differences. There was and is no dispute that there were differences, but they were minor ones. The words used by the health officials in the same emails mentioned by the Deputy where that "language and presentation has to be tied up"; "there may be minor additions"; "it has not fully been signed off"; and "we need to agree a date with the IMO for publication". Those are totally prudent things. There was nothing in those emails to suggest that the document was commercially sensitive or that it was secret. As I said in November, had the changes been substantive, they would have had to go back to Cabinet. It did not go back to Cabinet. All the salient details were out there in the public domain.

There was a public launch about it that the Minister, Deputy Harris, and I attended. The IMO issued a detailed statement with the financials, the costings and anything that was of a commercially sensitive nature. There was a Government memo, written by the Department of Health, and sent for information, which stated that engagement had concluded. It was the case that there were some tweaks thereafter. There were some minor additions and changes. This was all known back in November. However, the Government memo stated that engagement had been concluded. It was reasonable for me to believe that that was the case, given that that was in the Government memo produced by the Department of Health. The details were discussed at public meetings, which included hundreds of GPs. Fergal Bowers also posted a tweet, giving detailed information about the contract.

The document was not a Cabinet paper or Cabinet memo and, therefore, did not fall under Cabinet confidentiality in that sense. It was not classified as a budget secret or a secret. Some documents are, but this one was not.

The Tánaiste has now changed his story again. He told the Dáil that he asked his PA to request the document from the Department of Health. He now says that he asked his PA for it and she already had a copy, so he never got it from the Department of Health. Why is he changing his story? Is it because now we can prove that there is no record whatsoever of his getting the document from the Department, requesting it or receiving it?

The freedom of information request shows clearly that the Tánaiste's defence of his actions lies now in tatters. He suggested to this House that this was part of a Government strategy. It is very clear that it was not a Government strategy. It is very clear from the communications that were released two months later that this would have been detrimental to the discussions, a serious breach of trust and that this document was confidential. It is also clear that as the Tánaiste sat in his office and put this contract in the post to the rival organisation of the IMO, an organisation which wanted to publish it and undermine the IMO, at the same time, the Minister, Deputy Harris, was requesting access to the document and was being refused access. We can prove all of that.

Does the Tánaiste accept that he has now changed his story in regard to how he got the second version of the document? Can he explain why he is changing his story once again?

No, that is exactly what I said, or more or less what I said, back in November. Of course I got the document from the Department of Health. Where else would I have got it from? The only people who had it were the Department of Health and the IMO. I hardly got it from the IMO, so of course I got it from the Department of Health, through the Minister, Deputy Harris, and my special adviser. She has that record, she has that document and it was released already under FOI. It is the document from 3 April. I had no later version. Some people are suggesting I did; I did not.

Why are there no records of me requesting it? Because I requested it verbally. Lots of times, I talked to my Ministers, advisers and officials. It is not that everything is done by email or done by writing. I had a number of documents in my inbox today, some of which I requested, some of which I did not. For very few of them would there be a written request requesting a particular document. There are things I would ask for verbally and they can be handed over in person. Everything does not have a paper trail and that is the reality of any workplace.

As I explained back in November, my motivation was to demonstrate to the president of the NAGP that this was a deal that it should not oppose, to mollify its opposition and to get it over the line. In the end, it did not oppose it and the deal did get over the line, so the strategy was successful in that regard.

Just be to clear, on 17 April, the Minister for Health requested the current draft - so a later, more up-to-date draft, presumably - appreciating that there were ongoing tweaks.

The Tánaiste is over time.

There was a third draft and ongoing tweaks. He got it the day he requested it.

His office requested it on 15 April.

I am moving on to the next speaker.

The daily numbers for Covid might be lower than they were a week or two week ago but they are still extremely high, as is the alarming number of reported deaths. We are in the middle of a crisis with no end in sight. The UK variant, with its increased transmissibility, resulted in flights being suspended from late December in recognition of that increased risk from the variant. Between 11 December and 3 January, 118,000 passengers arrived by air and a further 20,000 arrived by sea. We know there was a requirement on all passengers to fill out a passenger locator form. According to the response to a question I tabled to the Minister for Health - I got the information on 14 January - passengers who do not claim an exemption, such as air and sea crew or those travelling onward, including to Northern Ireland, are followed up and contacted by text to confirm their address and, if they do not respond, they get one or more phone calls. Ultimately, I was told, 51% of those passengers gave their place of residence. This means that a whopping 49% did not confirm where they were staying. We are currently seeing people being fined for travelling beyond 5 km if they do not have a good reason to do so. The contrast is not lost on the public. While none of us likes losing our freedoms and none of us wants to see international travellers restricted, we are in the middle of a pandemic and such high levels of non-compliance have to be a risk and must be extending or prolonging our lockdowns and everything that goes with them.

I raised this issue in regard to international travel with the Tánaiste on 4 November. I said that it seemed we were taking a fingers-crossed approach in terms of compliance. The Tánaiste told me:

One of the issues we are going to have to consider is enforcement. As the Deputy knows, at the moment the requirement for a person to restrict his or her movements having come in from abroad is not mandatory.

He went on to say:

One thing we are giving consideration to as a Government is whether we need to make mandatory and make legally enforceable the requirement for a person to restrict his or her movements or self-isolate in certain circumstances.

Since 9 January, when flights resumed, passengers originating from the UK, South Africa and, subsequently, any South American country are advised to self-isolate for a period of 14 days following their arrival. The key word here is "advised". That was according to a PQ reply I got yesterday from the Minister for Transport. Where is the enforcement that was being talked about in November? Obviously, the risks have to be managed until the vaccine provides a protection that gives us some semblance of normality. We know there are risks from new variants. We also know that we need an all-Ireland approach, yet we are not providing information that has been repeatedly sought from our Northern Ireland counterparts. Why is that?

I will reiterate my questions. In regard to the 49% of passengers who did not provide an address, what is the Government going to do about that non-compliance? Where is the enforcement? What additional measures are seriously being considered? For example, is the Government looking at mandatory quarantines in designated hotels? What is it going to do in regard to Northern Ireland and the request for information?

I thank the Deputy for her questions. The passenger locator form has been in place for many months, as she knows. It has not worked out to be as robust a measure as was needed. That is why the Government made changes in recent weeks in response to the fact that we are now concerned about new variants entering the country from other parts of the world. Now, anybody who is entering the State by air or by sea, with the exception of supply chain workers, hauliers, pilots and cabin crew, for example, has to have a PCR test. People have to have had a PCR test within 72 hours of arriving in the country and they have to produce evidence of it. There is a very high degree of compliance when it comes to that. It is working very well. I know it is not 100% in terms of stopping the virus coming into the country but it is working very well and it is mandatory. There are fines and files have been sent by the Garda to the DPP for people who have arrived without evidence of a negative test.

The number of people travelling in and out of the country now is very low. It is down to about 33,000 people a week, but that is people who are travelling for essential reasons. Quarantining that many people for 14 days in a hotel with closed windows would be 66,000 people. These are people who generally are involved in essential travel, for example, people coming back for a funeral or maybe seeing a dying relative, a supply chain worker or a crucial worker who has come to fix a machine in a hospital, for example. This is essential travel and we need to make sure we do not cut off essential travel entirely because sometimes it is necessary.

In terms of anything we might do in the future, we need to bear in mind three things: our citizens' rights - our EU rights as EU citizens; proportionality; and the situation with regard to Northern Ireland. First, on proportionality, at the moment if somebody tests positive for Covid in Ireland, we do not detain them. We do not put them in a hotel with security guards. If we were to take people who have come in from overseas - Irish people returning home; citizens coming back from overseas who have a negative test for Covid - and detain them in a hotel for 14 days, that would be disproportionate because there are lots of people in Ireland who we know have tested positive for Covid and we do not seek to detain them. Unfortunately, some of them do not self-isolate when they are supposed to. We would have to consider the proportionality of it.

The next issue is citizens' rights. We are EU citizens, there is freedom of movement and we have the right to travel, study and work anywhere in the European Union. That can only be constrained in very particular circumstances.

Then there is the obvious issue of Northern Ireland. A zero Covid policy and a very strict 14-day border quarantine might make sense in a country that can control its borders. We cannot do so in the same way because of the open land border with Northern Ireland, which we do not want to close. If the UK, as has been suggested - although I understand that those suggestions are not advanced - were to bring in border quarantine, we might be able to do something on a two-island basis, but it is not going to work on a two-thirds-of-an-island basis.

Non-compliance with the passenger locator form tells us something about non-compliance. We are aware that the PCR test, while it is required and mandatory, is not sufficient on its own. A second test is required within a number of days. I am aware that people coming in from the United Kingdom and other countries, such as South Africa, are supposed to quarantine for 14 days. Is there an exception to that? Is there an exception because the travel is required for business or other reasons? Is there a requirement or is there not? Why are we not providing to our counterparts in Northern Ireland information to the effect that we want an all-Ireland approach? We have to play our part too, so why are we not giving our counterparts information that has been repeatedly requested regarding people who are travelling on so the authorities can follow up on where they are staying? Is the Tánaiste saying the Government is not going to introduce mandatory restrictions, even in light of the high level of non-compliance?

People coming in from the United Kingdom or South Africa — there are no direct flights from South Africa but people could come in from other airports — are required to have a negative PCR test before landing in the country. It is mandatory. They are then strongly advised to self-isolate for 14 days; that is not mandatory.

On sharing information with Northern Ireland, we have an information exchange. I understand there are some difficulties with our sharing data with Northern Ireland. We are very happy to do so, in principle, but I am told there are some difficulties with the format and the details of the requests and so on. We will resolve that. We intend to do so. The big flaw for Ireland in imposing 14-day mandatory quarantine with hotel detention for people arriving in our ports and airports is that it would be largely ineffective because we could not do so on the land border with Northern Ireland. Without stating the obvious, countries that have done this successfully are island states — we are an island geographically but not an island state — or countries such as South Korea, which has a border with North Korea that is of a very different type than ours with Northern Ireland.

This morning, many people's hearts sank on hearing level 5 restrictions are going to continue for at least another month. Infection figures remain stubbornly high. Throughout this pandemic, hospitals have consistently been to the fore regarding new outbreak figures. Not only are hospitals reservoirs for infection of vulnerable people, but they are also sources of new infection in our communities. These outbreaks are taking large numbers of vital front-line medical staff out of our hospitals, leaving the remaining staff struggling to provide care to patients.

As I have said for months on Leaders' Questions, we must analyse all the available data on Covid infections and make our decisions on what those data are telling us. The data indicate that we need to take a completely new approach to managing infection outbreaks in our hospitals. Last week, I pleaded with the Minister for Health to address the situation with regard to the management of contaminated personal protective equipment, PPE, in our hospitals. I pointed out that hospitals have complained that they do not have enough bins available to them for the amount of PPE waste that is being created. With such a high rate of infections in our hospitals, it gives rise to very significant risks of infection.

This week, we see from the minutes of NPHET's meeting on 10 December that the team expressed concern and sought clarity as to why mass testing was not being carried out in our hospitals where outbreaks had been detected. The HSE response to these concerns pointed out that decisions on mass testing are being taken locally by hospitals, which seek advice from the local public health department, and with involvement nationally from senior HSE management only where necessary. In plain English, the buck stops with nobody. When there is no one in charge, there is stagnation, leading to hospitals being a reservoir for Covid infection. We will never get our infection figures down unless we address this lack of leadership. This is a position supported by NPHET, which suggested in early December that the HSE establish a national outbreak control team to ensure consistency of approach nationally to addressing hospital outbreaks and engaging in mass testing. Is there anyone in charge of controlling and minimising Covid outbreaks in our hospitals? Where does the buck stop? Can the Tánaiste confirm whether the national outbreak control team has eventually been put in place?

Obviously, the buck stops with the HSE in this regard. I do not know whether the national outbreak team has been established yet. I will find out for the Deputy.

In general, we all appreciate the Covid situation is very serious. We are still seeing more than 2,000 cases per day. More than 200 people are in intensive care, and about 2,000 are in hospital. Case numbers and the number of hospitalisations are starting to fall slightly but not at the pace we would like. While no decision has yet been made on restrictions - a decision will be made by the Cabinet next week - it is fair to say we are nowhere near where we need to be to ease level 5 restrictions. Of course, that does not mean that schools cannot open in February. There is, of course, the possibility of opening more construction sites because they are not supposed to be closed normally in level 5.

The Deputy rightly raises concerns about hospital clusters. We are aware that nursing home and hospital clusters are numerous. Sadly, most deaths occur in nursing homes and hospitals. Indeed, it seems that as many as one third of patients in hospital got Covid in hospital. They did not go in Covid-positive; they picked up Covid while in the hospital. Some may not be sick as a result of it. They may be sick for a different reason but it is still a matter of genuine concern that so many people are acquiring Covid in our hospitals.

Regarding what has been done, the HSE is responsible, as I said earlier. It seeks advice from local public health departments on what to do when there is an outbreak in a hospital. Generally what happens is that there is testing in outbreak areas. If there is an outbreak in a ward, an intensive care unit or another part of the hospital, testing is done there. Mass testing has been done on occasion, as in both University Hospital Limerick and Letterkenny University Hospital, but it is very labour intensive and can divert from the vaccine programme, patient care and other things that need to be done.

On 3 November I asked a parliamentary question on the need for the establishment of a co-ordinated response team to ensure a consistent approach to Covid outbreaks, but when I received a reply on 21 December in advance of the current surge in infections, the HSE was silent on its establishment. In the first week of January, there were 158 outbreaks in our hospitals. Last week, we had a further 37 new outbreaks. Our hospitals should be about making people better, not about picking up a virus that could be deadly.

The Tánaiste will recall that as a result of my persistent highlighting of the Covid infection problems in our meat plants during the first wave of infection, a national outbreak control team was put in place to ensure we would have a consistent national approach to managing Covid outbreaks in those facilities. Regular testing of all staff is now taking place in our meat plants. Surely if we can do this in the meat plants, we should be able to do it for patients, front-line staff and those who will, sadly, need our hospitals over the weeks and months to come.

I will check the position on the national outbreak control team. I am not sure whether it has been established yet, but it is fair to say the settings in question are healthcare settings. Many people in healthcare settings will have Covid and many will have other illnesses. They are very susceptible to Covid, and that is why infection control is so important. Hospitals, nurse managers and doctors are very well trained in infection control and have the support of microbiology teams, for example, to advise them.

When it comes to mass testing, I am not sure how practical it would be to do mass or serial testing in hospitals given the number of them and the number of tests that would have to be done. However, it has been done in Letterkenny University Hospital, where there were major outbreaks. What tends to be done is that testing is done in the outbreak areas within the hospital because it might be in a particular part, ward or department of the hospital. That is done on the advice of the local public health department.

Last year the Minister for Finance rightly acknowledged that midland communities felt threatened by the wind-down of Bord na Móna and the closure of ESB power stations in the region. He also stated at that time that it was the duty of Government to ensure that no cohort of citizens, workers, communities or enterprises were left behind by this disruption, a disruption that would hit midland counties like Offaly very hard. Unfortunately, however, following the decision taken by Bord na Móna last week to end peat harvesting and production, that is exactly what has happened. Communities have been left behind. This is especially true for all of those involved in the horticulture sector. They are left behind. The just transition commissioner, Kieran Mulvey, said it was likely to act as the final nail in the coffin of our indigenous horticultural industry. The commissioner also noted that we had solved one problem only to create an entirely new one, namely, that we would from now on have to import horticultural peat product rather than produce it ourselves.

There are echoes of the EU proposal from 2005 for the reform of the sugar industry. These were reforms that eventually destroyed the viability of sugar beet growing in Ireland and put 4,000 growers out of business. The problems now faced by the midlands are a direct result of the decision to escalate the so-called just transition process from ten years to a matter of months. This has guaranteed, contrary to Government commitments, that entire communities are being left behind.

Perhaps communities in Offaly might have been able to absorb this shock if it were not for the many other profound challenges they face at the same time. We have a forestry sector in bureaucratic chaos and we have upcoming EU regulations that will severely limit and in some cases destroy the capacity of agricultural merchants. We also have the Irish grain and feed industry about to be hit with unsustainable tariffs and levies. This amounts to a kind of death by a thousand cuts.

Will the Tánaiste ensure there is an immediate re-evaluation and impact assessment of the just transition process as well as a commitment from this Government to follow through on its stated aim of ensuring that no citizens, workers, communities or enterprises will be left behind? The people of Offaly and the wider midlands area deserve better and nothing less than that.

I thank the Deputy. I appreciate the extent to which the ESB and Bord na Móna were the mainstays of employment in the midlands and how important this is to Laois and Offaly in particular and the region as a whole. Where there is a just transition, it has to be not just for workers and former workers, but for the communities as well. Somebody may get a good package to retire or become redundant but the payroll loss to the town or community can have a huge impact, so we need to see it in the round.

Bord na Móna no longer has a licence to harvest peat. That has stopped and the Deputy knows why that is. That could impact on the horticulture industry and mushroom growers and we are looking for affordable alternatives for those industries.

In terms of what we can do around employment, the Deputy will be aware there is now a just transition commissioner and a specific fund that is being invested in the midlands, particularly because it is the area that is first to experience this transition. My Department will develop a new set of regional jobs plans which will include such a plan for the midlands region. We will put a lot of focus into that, making sure there are new employment opportunities for people in the area.

The Tánaiste did not answer my question. The just transition plan is falling apart. There is a meeting this week in the county council in Offaly with the just transition commissioner. It is falling apart and it is not delivering for communities. The Tánaiste is reneging on his Government's duty to ensure communities are not left behind. Instead, this Government is pursuing and prioritising vague, aspirational biodiversity priorities in place of those that are important, such as employment. We have a situation where people with mortgages and children to feed, clothe and educate are playing second fiddle to those aspirational biodiversity priorities that the Tánaiste and the Government have put first with little or no understanding of the midlands and counties like Offaly.

I ask the Tánaiste to re-evaluate this plan because it is not working, there is no confidence in it and it is not creating employment. People cannot remain unemployed while Government achieves its climate change targets. There is a better way of doing things and I believe climate change targets should not act as a veto on common sense, which is what is happening. There is a practical, fair and just way of doing things but the just transition plan is not working.

We need to act to stop climate change. If we do not, many more jobs will be lost through the climate chaos that would ensue. We need to think short, medium and long term when it comes to the trade-off between jobs and industry on the one hand and protecting our environment on the other. If we do not stop climate change, the impacts o Ireland could be severe on many of our industries, not least agriculture and tourism.

In terms of the climate actions we take, we need to ensure we do it in such a way that we do not see a net reduction in employment. That is what our plan is about. I think the just transition plan is a good one. I appreciate the Deputy may feel differently. It is funded with money from the carbon tax. To give one example, the bog restoration and rewetting programme is transferring people in Bord na Móna who would have been cutting bog and releasing CO2 into a new role where they are rewetting and restoring bogs, which makes them a carbon sink. I will take on board what the Deputy said and make sure the just transition commissioner and his team are aware of her comments.