Ceisteanna - Questions

Cabinet Committees

Alan Kelly

Ceist:

1. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Covid-19 last met; and when it will next meet. [27893/21]

Cathal Crowe

Ceist:

2. Deputy Cathal Crowe asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Covid-19 last met; and when the next meeting is planned. [29524/21]

Cian O'Callaghan

Ceist:

3. Deputy Cian O'Callaghan asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Covid-19 will next meet. [30926/21]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, together.

The Cabinet committee on Covid-19 was re-established by Government on 29 June 2020 to continue to assess the social and economic impacts of the potential spread of Covid-19 and oversee the cross-government response. The committee met most recently on Thursday, 27 May. The date of the next meeting has not been set.

Our overall approach to the management of the pandemic continues to be one that is cautious and sustainable over the immediate, medium and longer term. Any easing of measures has been gradual with sufficient time between phases to assess impact and to respond if the epidemiological situation was to deteriorate.

We are mindful of the risks as we move forward. We have to monitor closely the issue of dangerous new variants, especially the Delta variant and the impact it has on the spread of the virus. In light of this, yesterday the Government agreed to enhanced quarantine arrangements for passengers not fully vaccinated arriving from Great Britain.

In making recent decisions on next steps, the Government weighed a number of considerations, including the progress achieved in managing the spread of the disease, the impact of the vaccination programme and the need to continue responsibly reopening our society and economy. When we open a sector of our society or economy, we want it to stay open. Our plan is working and we are now in the early stages of the recovery phase of the pandemic.

In late May, the Government decided to move ahead with the next stage of reopening the economy and society in line with our national strategy, Resilience and Recovery: The Path Ahead. The decision was based on public health advice that a cautious and phased reopening can continue, with a continuing emphasis on outdoor activity, and sufficient time between phases to assess the impact and ensure that progress in controlling the virus is maintained. The advice at the time was that the measures were of low to medium risk.

The most recent announcement included the lifting of a number of public health restrictions during June as well as setting out plans for further easing of measures over the summer, subject to prevailing public health advice.

In early June, accommodation services, such as hotels and bed and breakfast accommodation, reopened to the general public. Last week, cinemas and theatres reopened and outdoor services resumed in restaurants and bars.

Increased numbers are now permitted at outdoor organised events, one unvaccinated household can visit one other unvaccinated household, sports matches can be held and gyms, pools and leisure centres can reopen for individual exercise. Selected sport and cultural pilot live events are taking place in June to assess protective measures and test the logistical arrangements for further reopening. Subject to the prevailing disease situation, July will see a return to indoor dining, the resumption of certain indoor activities and increased numbers permitted to attend events.

From 19 July, subject to the prevailing public health situation, Ireland will operate the EU digital Covid certificate for travel originating within the European Union-EEA area. Subject to continued progress, further easing of restrictions will be considered for August, including an increase in the numbers permitted to gather and attend events, both outdoor and indoor.

I will raise three issues. First, in relation to the Delta variant, I welcome what Mr. Paul Reid communicated in the HSE update yesterday. With regard to the AstraZeneca vaccine, an issue I have been raising for weeks, ongoing communication is needed and the commitment needs to be honoured by 19 July. Have studies been commissioned or has the Government received a briefing on the efficacy of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine against the Delta variant? That is an honest question. Does the Taoiseach have any information on this matter because I have not seen any and I follow it intensely? A Public Health England study, which only looked at AstraZeneca, found that the first dose is only 33% effective against the Delta variant. Another study this week showed that Pfizer and AstraZeneca are highly effective after two doses but there do not appear to be any studies on the Janssen vaccine from Johnson & Johnson. Will the Taoiseach ask the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, and National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, to look at this?

Second, the Irish Wheelchair Association has raised issues with regard to accessibility in cities and towns. There are good developments as regards outdoor dining and facilitating people but providing toilet facilities and access is a real issue.

Finally, I ask the Taoiseach to consider the provision of grants for community halls that have been closed due to Covid. While some groups have been funded - the Nenagh Musical Academy, for instance, received good funding for an outdoor performance - the halls in which many are based have no income. Once-off small grants to local authorities to allow them to keep these community halls with tenants going for the next six months would be appreciated. They are doing their best but their fixed costs are not being covered.

I also raise an issue in relation to the AstraZeneca vaccine. We cannot deny that there is a high level of concern among people in their 60s and those with underlying health conditions who have received their first dose of AstraZeneca. The first concern relates to the length of the interval between doses but a second concern relates to the efficacy of the vaccine in respect of the Delta variant.

Things have changed since we got more information about the Delta variant. We know now that, even with two doses, AstraZeneca only gives protection of up to 60% with respect to transmissibility. While another study has been done on the risk of hospitalisation, in relation to transmissibility, AstraZeneca only gives protection of 60% compared with the 88% protection Pfizer gives. When I asked the Minister a few weeks ago if he would consider mixing and matching, his response was that he could not do that because all of the existing vaccines had been committed. There was, therefore, a logistical reason for that. Since then, NIAC has stated it has not yet finished studying the mixing of vaccine doses but that the early indications are very encouraging. Professor Luke O'Neill has strongly supported this approach. Professor Kingston Mills made a very strong epidemiological case yesterday for why we should take that approach. Five other European countries are doing it. Will the Taoiseach give consideration to this now, especially in light of Paul Reid's statement this morning that supply lines have improved?

We need to protect people on the basis of risk. The older a person is, the more likely he or she is to have underlying health conditions and the more likely he or she is to be at risk of contracting the virus. Will the Taoiseach give consideration to this matter?

The Taoiseach has taken a number of big gambles in the management of the Covid pandemic. The biggest was the decision to reopen at the end of November last year. To put it mildly, those gambles did not pay off. The Taoiseach is taking another big gamble now in relation to the Delta variant. We hope that gamble pays off and we are able to achieve sufficient levels of full vaccination, in particular of vulnerable groups, before the Delta variant becomes dominant here. If, however, the gamble not to introduce mandatory hotel quarantine for those coming from England, Scotland and Wales does not pay off, we will be in a crisis and there will be negative consequences for people's health and long Covid and there will be extra unnecessary deaths. We will also be in a position where not only will the reopening of indoor dining and pubs scheduled for the start of July have to be delayed but other measures may have to be reversed. Obviously, nobody wants to be in that situation but if we are, will the Taoiseach take responsibility for the decision he has made and will he own up to it at that point? It will be difficult to convince people that we need another lockdown to stop the Delta variant but that is, unfortunately, the position we might be in four, five or six weeks from now if the Delta variant becomes dominant. The reason for that will be that we did not do what we could have done at this point to try to slow its spread.

I return to the maternity hospital restrictions on partners, which are still in place in many hospitals despite the fact that the Taoiseach, Chief Medical Officer and Minister for Health have all stated they should be lifted and the HSE has issued a circular on the matter. The Taoiseach will have heard Deputies today speak about experiences in Mullingar and Limerick. Let me add another. A colleague of mine drove his wife, who is 36 weeks' pregnant, to the Coombe. She was sick with pains, vomiting, headaches, dehydration and very distressed. He was not allowed to be with her. These experiences are happening right across the State. I raised this with the Taoiseach previously. Last month, he told me he would talk to the CEO of the HSE to ensure the HSE circular was being applied. It is not being applied at countless locations. Will the Taoiseach now engage directly with the CEO of each hospital group to ensure every maternity hospital and unit lifts these restrictions now? A hands-off or an arm's-length approach to this matter has not worked.

On Deputy Kelly's questions, I will check in relation to Janssen. I have not seen research either in respect of the Janssen vaccine and its efficacy in protecting against the Delta variant. Unfortunately, the situation with Janssen supply has been very difficult in terms of the vaccines being in a plant in America and not being freed up. That has significantly impacted on supplies to this country in respect of Janssen, as the House will be aware.

In respect of the Irish Wheelchair Association, Deputy Kelly is correct and I will certainly follow up on the matter. Particularly from a local authority perspective, there should be proactive provision in terms of access to outdoor facilities, dining facilities and so forth.

With regard to community halls, there is an enhanced community grant scheme. We provided €5 million recently to augment €2 million that had been provided already to support and enhance community-based facilities during Covid-19.

That is available and we will see what can be done.

The criteria are tight.

I will see what I can do to relax the criteria. We did not ask that they be that tight. We want to support community facilities because communities have been very good during Covid-19. They have been very effective in helping the State's efforts and society's efforts to deal with Covid-19. When we allocated the funding, we did not want the criteria to be too tight. Obviously, the funding has to meet the needs of communities and meet clearly defined objectives. I will follow up on that matter.

Regarding Deputy Shortall's comments, according to a public health study yesterday, AstraZeneca is 92% effective against hospitalisation. That is a key metric and an important point.

Not against transmissibility.

I know, but a 92% effectiveness against hospitalisation is an important point. It was an important piece of research that deserves to be highlighted. That is the point I am making. Also, NIAC has not recommended the mixing of vaccines. By the middle of July, we will be down to only two vaccines - Moderna and Pfizer. That is where we will be once we have completed the second dosage of AstraZeneca. NIAC's Professor Karina Butler yesterday was very clear that people should accept the vaccines that they are offered. We will be in a position to complete the second dosage of the AstraZeneca programme by the middle of July. For the remainder of the programme, we need to get as many people as protected as we possibly can. That is important, too. In terms of the supply of vaccines, June will be the month with the highest supply that we will have. It is important to get as large a number as we possibly can vaccinated. As a country, we are at the top in Europe in terms of participation rates across the age cohorts, which is an important and significant point. This is giving us added protection as a society.

We can all comment and we can all have individual perspectives, but we have to go through the processes and various channels as the advices come through. What the Deputy is advocating is a very significant step. Equally, every time we chop and change, it can potentially affect uptake. That is a problem. We want to maintain our very high performance in relation to participation rates and the uptake of vaccines. The age cohort approach has worked. We go down through the age cohorts and people wait to get their vaccines and then avail of them. That is where we are right now.

The HSE has announced that it can bring forward the AstraZeneca programme - that is good news - and that, by mid-July, everyone will have his or her second dose. That will give very strong protection. I am one of those who have taken the AstraZeneca vaccine and I am quite prepared to wait my turn for the second dose.

As a society, if we keep pushing this out, we can get to very good levels of overall societal protection by the end of July, which will then hopefully be a strong bulwark against variants. I think we will need boosters later on in the year or early next year. It will depend. I think our older age cohorts will need booster vaccines, but NIAC has said that the length of time that immunity lasts is longer. That is good news as well. We will then have to look at young people and children in the autumn. NIAC is examining that following authorisations that have been given to the companies in respect of children and young people. Along with the European Union, we have entered into pre-purchase agreements for mRNA vaccines throughout 2021 and 2022.

Regarding Deputy Paul Murphy, I do not take gambles on this. He should not personalise it to the degree that he seems intent on doing. We took advice to move to level 3 in November, we moved to level 3 and there was no modelling in terms of the scale of the third wave or the Alpha variant, B.1.1.7. We are not taking gambles in relation to the Delta variant. We have taken on board the public health advice in respect of the reopening of society. We were advised at the most recent meeting that there was low to medium risk in terms of the opening up of internal hospitality in early July and travel on 19 July. We will keep this under review. So far, the last seven days have been better than the previous seven days, but we are still keeping this under review. We are not taking anything for granted. We are conscious of the risks.

Taoiseach, we need to move on. I am afraid we are out of time. We need to go to Question No. 4.

On the maternity issue, I have spoken to the chief executive officer of the HSE. The HSE runs its organisation and the CEO and his management team deal and work with the hospitals across the country in terms of the clinical guidance that has issued from the HSE. That is the proper way for it to happen. I will engage again with the HSE in respect of comments that have been made in the House today.

Cabinet Committees

Alan Kelly

Ceist:

4. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on health last met; and when it will next meet. [27894/21]

Cathal Crowe

Ceist:

5. Deputy Cathal Crowe asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on health last met; and when the next meeting is planned. [29522/21]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

6. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on health last met; and when it will next meet. [31399/21]

Paul Murphy

Ceist:

7. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on health last met; and when it will next meet. [31402/21]

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

8. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on health will next meet. [31800/21]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 4 to 8, inclusive, together.

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

The pandemic has led to an unprecedented interruption to normal healthcare activity in both acute and community settings. This interruption has been severely exacerbated by the recent cyberattack on the HSE's IT systems. Healthcare services continue to be severely impacted. Essential services are continuing. However, systems are not operating as normal and patients are experiencing delays in some cases. Existing arrangements with private hospitals are being utilised to assist with urgent care requirements. The main focus of the HSE has been to get priority systems back online, such as radiology and diagnostic systems, maternity and infant care, patient administration systems, chemotherapy and radiation oncology. Most hospitals are still dealing with substantial challenges and limited functionality.

Work is ongoing to restore other hospital systems progressively. It is likely that it will be at least several more weeks before the system is operating normally.

The Taoiseach stated that he had not taken gambles in terms of Covid. That is not historically accurate. I hope that we will have a public inquiry into the management of Covid and it will be for that inquiry to judge, but the Taoiseach also said something that is for us to discuss today, that no gamble is being taken at the moment.

There is a gamble or, to use a different word, a choice involved. The Taoiseach clearly accepts that there is a problem with the threat of the Delta variant becoming dominant here, that our quarantine regime, for those coming from England, Scotland and Wales, has been inadequate and that the Government is, therefore, changing the nature of that regime. The problem I see is how the nature of the regime is being changed. What is being altered is the length of quarantine, from five days to ten. at home. It seems that there is strong evidence to suggest that the main problem is not with the length of time but with the fact that it is at-home quarantine. What percentage of those who are supposed to be quarantining at home have got PCR tests after five days? That would be an interesting statistic to know. The main point is that there are flaws in the at-home quarantine model. There are many people who do not have a home in which they can self-isolate and quarantine safely. This is because they share a home and so on. Many others cannot do it without the kind of supports that come with a proper mandatory hotel quarantine regime. The Government is making a choice. It is taking a gamble by not opting for mandatory hotel quarantine, which would surely be more effective at slowing down the spread of the Delta variant.

I want to raise the issue of the escalating crisis in public dental health services. As the Taoiseach is aware, before the pandemic struck, waiting lists had been unacceptably high for many years and the shortfall in the context of the HSE hiring adequate numbers of staff for Covid testing made a bad situation worse throughout last year. In my constituency, Dublin Central, dentists in the public system have become increasingly frustrated as staff continue to be redeployed for vaccination duties. There are more than 10,000 schoolchildren in Dublin and north Dublin who rely on HSE-provided dental care. That figure does not include children who require specialist treatment. The families concerned do not have the option of private care when the public system lets them down.

Last week, the Irish Dental Association informed its members that the HSE dental services in Kildare and west Wicklow have been forced to confine the provision of dental care to emergency care only for children and adults. This decision has nothing to do with the recent cyberattack, it is about the historic under-resourcing of dental care in the public system. The association’s fear is that HSE dental services throughout the State will be forced to impose similar restrictions, sooner rather than later. Is the Taoiseach aware of the depth of this crisis and what action will he take to ensure that regulations, introduced by him more than 20 years ago to ensure and guarantee treatment, are finally implemented and resourced in full?

I have two points to make. The first relates to the changes to home quarantining. Those changes will be meaningless unless there is some element of supervision. At a minimum, what should be done is a linking up of the passenger locator form with the PCR test result, because we simply do not know what is happening, whether people are getting tested or what test results are.

My second point is about the Irish Cancer Society, which is warning very clearly that we are facing a tsunami of undiagnosed and, in some instances, advanced cancer cases. The Irish Cancer Society is looking for a number of things to be done. It wants leadership on the cancer strategy, which must be updated. We require more consultants working in this area and more theatre time and beds. The society says that, at the very minimum, there should be a public awareness campaign because it is conscious of the fact that people have, in the main, been reticent about seeing their GPs during Covid. People have been nervous about doing so. GPs are reporting that patients are not coming to see them with concerns about lumps, pains or cancer concerns. The Irish Cancer Society is asking that a clear public awareness campaign be put into operation to advise people that if they have particular concerns, they should go to their GP as soon as possible. Does the Taoiseach support this?

I thank the Deputies for raising these issues. On the points raised by Deputy Kelly, there is no reason partners and family members cannot attend scans and appointments relating to maternity services.

Unfortunately, it happens.

It should not be happening. Clear guidance has been given by the HSE to hospitals. That is clinical guidance. The question is often asked as to who is in charge. In health and in the world of medicine, politicians do not dictate - and have never done so - to medics in terms of clinical guidance. Given that we have had such a successful vaccination programme in hospitals and in view of the fact that the levels of disease are so low, risks are very low. It is difficult to comprehend why these restrictions are remaining in place, particularly in light of the national guidance given by the HSE. I will certainly have the issue of the woman being told to attend for a fatal foetal anomaly scan alone to which Deputy Kelly referred investigated. The cyberattack has put services under significant pressure, there is no question about that. However, that is more in terms of the front line. For those working on the front line, it has been very difficult and traumatic and for those rebuilding the system it has been extraordinarily difficult and challenging.

(Interruptions).

I am making the point generally. I am not saying it happened in this context. I am making the point generally, which we must acknowledge. We can criticise the health service a lot, but the work it has done in the context of Covid and in the aftermath of the cyberattack has been truly heroic. I must say that. It has stood up to the test and we must say that a bit more because we are always reluctant to affirm the health services because, very often, there is not much to be gained politically by the Opposition generally - I am not referring to Deputy Kelly in this respect – supporting or affirming the good work done.

As regard maternity hospitals, Deputy Kelly will know - and we all know - about the autonomy of hospitals, the autonomy of masters and the heads of maternity services having jurisdiction within the maternity hospitals and units. I do not know whether that was a factor here, but it needs to be sorted out because it has been raised in the House consistently. It is not just a political direction, but the clinical direction has been given and there needs to be uniformity and consistency of policy to benefit mothers-to-be and their partners.

On the issue of home care packages, unprecedented resources have been allocated. It is unprecedented in that there are 5 million home care hours.

There are not enough people.

Those resources, coming into the winter period, were very effective and had much impact.

As to the upskilling and recruitment of people, we will continue to work on that.

Deputy Paul Murphy stated that it is only a question of whether we use the word “gamble” or the word “choice”. There is a fundamental difference between taking a gamble and making a choice. I say emphatically that I do not gamble with peoples’ lives. I do not gamble with peoples’ health. I want to make that point and refute any implication or innuendo to the contrary.

The mandatory hotel quarantining that we introduced has worked in protecting public health. I think the positivity figure is 2.7% for those who have come through mandatory hotel quarantine. There is also a balance to be struck. There are choices and balances to be made. The vast majority of Deputies have been criticising the Government in the past two or three weeks because of the impact on aviation and the impact Covid has had on travel. Opposition Deputies have asserted that there is a Government policy on the situation of aviation. People cannot have it both ways. There is a balance to be struck also in making sure we have some semblance of an aviation sector when Covid is over and we emerge from it. I want to put that out there. It is something we must consider. We have funded and provided relief resources to airlines and airports. Notwithstanding that, the pandemic is having an impact throughout Europe and here as well. As a small open society, we depend a great deal on international connectivity. That said, we have acted in accordance with the advice so far. The advice we have received as to the decisions we have taken for June and July is that those measures are low to medium risk. That is the advice we have received.

As to the figures so far, we have been improving consistently since May in managing the impact and spread of the virus.

That said, we are very mindful of the dangers of the Delta variant and will not be slow to act.

European Council

Alan Kelly

Ceist:

9. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the European Council. [29775/21]

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

10. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the recent European Council meeting. [31801/21]

Bríd Smith

Ceist:

11. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the most recent European Council meeting. [31403/21]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

12. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the most recent European Council meeting. [31405/21]

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

I joined European Union leaders in Brussels on 24 and 25 May for a special meeting of the European Council. We discussed Covid-19, including ongoing developments on vaccination across Europe, and the roll-out of the EU digital Covid certificate this summer. We reaffirmed our commitment to accelerating vaccine sharing with the aim of donating at least 100 million doses by the end of the year.

As agreed in December, we provided guidance to the European Commission on climate issues ahead of the expected publication of the Fit for 55 package in July.

We agreed that additional sanctions should be imposed on Belarus in response to the forced landing of a Ryanair flight in Minsk on 23 May, and the detention by Belarusian authorities of journalist Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapega. We held a strategic debate on Russia and restated our commitment to the five principles that have guided the European Union's policy towards Russia since 2016. We will have a further discussion of EU-Russia relations at our meeting on 24 and 25 June.

We discussed relations with the United Kingdom and reaffirmed that the trade and co-operation agreement, together with the withdrawal agreement and its protocols, provide the framework for European Union-United Kingdom relations and should be fully and effectively implemented. I expressed my support for the approach being taken by the Commission, which continues to engage in good faith with the United Kingdom, working towards the full and effective implementation of what was agreed. I stress that I am absolutely clear on the bona fides of the Commission and its desire to bring these issues to an effective and pragmatic resolution. That requires political will on all sides. The Commission is there, as is the Government of the United Kingdom, and we have made the point that a deal can be reached on outstanding issues.

The Council welcomed the Israel-Palestine ceasefire, reiterated our commitment to the two-state solution and agreed to continue to work with international partners to restart the political process.

We also condemned the kidnapping of the transitional President of Mali and the Prime Minister and called for their immediate release.

It was a significant meeting of the European Council in May. A strong statement was made on the diversion of the Ryanair flight to Minsk and the sanctions against Belarus. Those sanctions need to be very strong because what happened was unprecedented. I ask the Taoiseach to update us with any other information he has on that matter.

Are we still on track to have the digital green certificate in place by 19 July? Hopefully all our 60 to 70-year-olds will be vaccinated by then. It is so important given all the discussions on the aviation industry. Are we still on track? We also need to know how far along the EU is in co-ordinating such a certificate with the likes of the US. Can the Taoiseach provide us with any information on that? How advanced are those plans? We need to look at our strong connections with the US. Such a digital certificate being interoperable is critically important. As we were very reliant on foreign direct investment, FDI, over the past year and a half, being able to travel between the EU and the US under a certificate that is completely interoperable would be a big plus. I ask the Taoiseach to provide us with some information on the status of those plans.

I thank the Taoiseach for that report. Beyond generalised assertions around restarting the political process, the two-state solution and so on, what is the European game plan as regards Palestine? In the face of the fact that Israel has been flagrantly in breach of international law time out of number, in the face of the bombardment of Gaza, the constant violations of human rights and the fact that Israel is an apartheid regime, what is the plan from Europe, bar occasional statements about a process that ran out of steam many moons ago? This situation is dire and desperately needs planned, cohesive and consistent action.

I ask the Taoiseach to give us his reflections on the comments of David Frost at a Westminster committee this morning, in which he made clear that British unilateral action in respect of grace periods and the protocol is still very much on the table. That is very worrying. President Biden's intervention was extremely helpful and we had all hoped that it would clarify matters and concentrate the British mind. What is the Taoiseach's response to what David Frost had to say? I also ask him to address substantively the issue of Palestine. What is the plan for peace and for Palestinian self-determination?

I note that the EU discussions on the various foreign policy issues included a discussion about sanctions on Belarus. It is inevitable that the EU would discuss that but it is extraordinary that there has been no discussion at that level about possible sanctions on Israel. The fragile truce is now broken and, as we speak, Israeli aircraft are bombing Gaza yet again. Those 11 days of vicious attacks on the Gaza Strip led to over 260 deaths. We do not know where this is going to lead. For EU leaders to just say they welcome the truce and expect it to last is naive in the extreme. This is an ongoing situation of a racist apartheid state with ultranationalist Zionist troops of hate marauding through Arab areas, kicking in doors and screaming "Death to all Arabs". This situation is not normal. The Israeli state is not normal. Yet, the European Union has economic ties with it, through the EU-Israeli deal, that are worth billions to that state every year. There has been no discussion about imposing strong sanctions against Israel if such attacks resume. The EU will discuss Russia, Belarus and the whole nine yards but ignores the possibility of doing anything about the Israeli state. It is treating it as if it as a normal state when it is not. It is clearly an apartheid, racist, vicious state and that has to be dealt with by the European Union. What is the Taoiseach doing to put pressure on our European partners to have that discussion about sanctions on the Israeli state? I have no doubt that in the next few weeks we will have to put pressure on the Taoiseach again about the potential expulsion of the Israeli ambassador from this country, should this situation escalate.

I raise a particular case of human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia and ask that the Taoiseach raise it at the European Council. Yesterday, the Saudi authorities executed a young man called Mustafa Hashim al-Darwish. He was arrested as a minor in 2015 as a result of participation in protests. He was held in solitary confinement and brutally tortured and in those conditions he confessed to various crimes. When he was brought before the court he recanted his confession because it was a result of that torture. Nonetheless, he was executed yesterday. Not only is that a horrific abuse of human rights, it is also a clear breach of the commitments the Saudi authorities have previously made that they do not apply the death penalty to children. This is another example of them doing precisely that. I am completely opposed to the death penalty full stop, but the death penalty applied to those who were children at the time of their alleged offences - and this is a case of participating in a protest - is particularly abhorrent.

The Saudi regime receives substantial support from the United States Administration in the form of funding and arms. However, Saudi Arabia also buys weapons from European Union countries. The question then is whether the EU will make a strong statement about this particular case and about the use of the death penalty in Saudi Arabia.

Deputy Kelly raised issues in respect of Belarus. There was great anger at the meeting of the European Council regarding the hijacking of the Ryanair aeroplane and the subsequent treatment of Roman Protasevich and his partner. There was a sense at that meeting that a line had been crossed by the Lukashenko regime and that it was unacceptable. A move was made immediately to initiate strong sanctions against Belarus for its behaviour. In many ways, against the backdrop of President Biden's visit to Europe in the past week or two, this really sets the context for what is essentially now a struggle in the modern world between democracies and authoritarian regimes. More and more, that is where this is heading, when activities of this kind are now almost casually entertained by dictators such as Lukashenko. I condemn what his regime has done. I did not hear any condemnation regarding it in respect of the questions that I have been asked by others, but it was unacceptable behaviour.

We condemned it in the debate about Belarus last week.

Regarding the Covid-19 certificate, the Deputy's point concerning interoperability with the United States is a good one. We are on target. It is challenging. The Covid-19 certificate is fine and we have PCR tests from different providers etc.. Work is progressing to meet the 19 July target. The idea of Europe and the United States having an interoperable certificate is very important and it is something we are advancing. We are doing that with third countries more generally as well, where vaccination programmes have advanced significantly. It makes a great deal of sense and that is what we are pursuing.

Turning to Deputy McDonald's points, and starting with the issue of Palestine, Europe has consistently had a clear position on the Middle East peace process for many years. There is support now, including from Ireland, for a reinvigorated role for the Middle East Quartet, namely, the European Union, the United States, Russia and the United Nations, in working to restart the peace process and a political process to try to bring this situation to a sustainable outcome. That is what is required. Humanitarian assistance from the European Union has been very strong in respect of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, UNRWA, in particular, and in supporting Palestinians on the ground in the West Bank and in Gaza. It is not often acknowledged in this House, but it is very substantial. Such support will continue. Ireland has engaged at the United Nations Security Council regarding this conflict and that engagement has included strongly underlining the Security Council's responsibility to speak out. We will again continue to keep doing that.

Deputy McDonald also raised other issues. I did not hear those comments this morning from David Frost-----

I am sorry, but we are out of time for this section of business.

I just want to make the point, if I may, that unilateral behaviour in respect of international agreements is not acceptable and it is not the course of travel for any country that has signed up to international agreements. A mechanism exists to resolve this issue and it can be resolved with some goodwill and common sense.

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