Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 24 Nov 2021

Vol. 1014 No. 5

Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

Yesterday, I raised with the Taoiseach the fact that so many people could not access PCR tests and he told me that this was not a problem. Today, there are no PCR tests available in 14 counties according to the HSE's portal. There are no PCR tests available in Carlow, Cork, Dublin, Kildare, Kilkenny, Meath, Tipperary, Waterford, Wexford, Wicklow, Kerry, Laois, Louth and Leitrim.

For people experiencing symptoms or in a household where someone is experiencing symptoms, not being able to access these tests is frustrating and frightening for people. Indeed, many have had to travel up to four hours to access a test. That is not acceptable.

I want to know what is the Taoiseach doing about this and how we have allowed this to come to pass at a time where a surge was predicted. The surge has arrived and we find people left in these situations.

Let the Taoiseach not tell me that this is not an issue. It is a big issue for people across the State.

I felt it would be a difficult winter. Deputy McDonald obviously did not feel it would be a difficult winter because she opposed the extension of the emergency powers and opposed the vaccination certificates.

For the wonderful Minister to make a botch of it again.

The Deputy herself was not prepared for a surge. The Deputy seemed to be ill-prepared for it because she opposed measures that were required to deal with it.

On the PCR testing, I never said it was not challenging. It is now at 210,000 tests per week. There have been 1 million tests in the past month to six weeks.

Fourteen counties with none.

I remember Deputy McDonald complaining about it not being at 100,000.

It is at 210,000 tests per week. Let us be fair about it, and balanced. The HSE is doing everything it possibly can to expand PCR testing. Testing is at a level that we never thought we would need but, because of the Delta variant and how transmissible it is, it has created huge pressures on the system.

When will people in those 14 counties be able to get tests?

The Deputy should acknowledge the good work that is being done as well.

Only 7% of the adult population of Ireland remains unvaccinated but that accounts for approximately 55% of those who are in ICU. In a discussion that Opposition spokespeople had yesterday with the Chief Medical Officer, CMO, some of the statistics that were given to us and related to unvaccinated young people were quite stark. Particularly in the age group between 25 and 29, only 80% of that age group is vaccinated. We do not want to get into the realm of shaming young people. We want to encourage young people to get vaccinated. I ask the Taoiseach what sort of public advertising campaign of encouragement will the Government invest in and roll out to ensure that younger people take up vaccination because they are the ones who are more mobile, are meeting more people and are part of the solution.

I agree with the Deputy in the sense that key to the vaccination programme has to be constant encouragement and persuasion. In some minority groupings, for example, which may culturally have some challenges with vaccination, there has been a reach-out from the HSE and a specific targeted focus that is yielding results in terms of increased numbers.

The Deputy is correct in stating that whereas it is a rate of 7% overall, there is a higher percentage of those who have not come forward for vaccination in that age cohort he identified and even in the 12 to 17 age cohort.

There is an ongoing communications approach but also pop-up vaccination centres have been provided, particularly in third level, for example, to make it accessible for those who have not yet come forward.

At the weekend, I was talking to the CEO, who said 1,900 people had come forward for their first dose in one particular area at the weekend, which illustrates this is still worth engagement. It is still worth pursuing that 7%, particularly as it is manifested in certain age cohorts and in certain groupings.

I agree 100% with the Deputy that, as we roll out the booster, we are also asking people to please come forward for a vaccination and that it matters and will protect them and their loved ones.

The Taoiseach will be aware of a situation in Riverstick, County Cork, where a large section of publicly-owned forestry is for sale by Coillte.

Ballymartle Woods is an incredibly important local amenity and biodiverse environment that is used by the community for recreation and by schools for education. A group of residents showed me the beautiful mature mixed forest on Monday. There is considerable local opposition to the sale and at a time when the State needs to drastically increase its afforestation, it is unbelievable that a large section of this wood or any other woodland would be on the market.

There is a pressing need for the Government to have a stronger role in cases such as this. Can the Taoiseach assure the residents of Riverstick and Belgooly that the Government will protect Ballymartle Woods and others?

Coillte, as the Deputy will be aware, is independent in terms of its operational duties. They have an obligation to report to the Minister in terms of any projects or whatever like that.

Apparently, this is in relation to an approach in terms of creating a woodland accommodation and recreational offering. I am assured that existing walking trails in Ballymartle Forest, which are very popular with locals, would remain open to the public and would be completely unaffected were this sale to proceed.

My own view is, generally speaking, given climate change and so on, that we need to do everything possible we can to preserve the existing woodlands that we have. I am not aware of the full background to this specific case in terms of the engagement Coillte is having with other interested parties but my view is that we need to protection, as the bottom line, all our native woodlands in terms of contributing to our climate change agenda.

Sixteen years ago today, the then Minister for Health and Children, Ms Mary Harney, stated that a national emergency should be declared in relation to our accident and emergency units. Ms Harney stated at the time, it "is not acceptable to the public, not acceptable to me, and not acceptable to the HSE" but 15 years on, we have over 2,000 patients waiting on trolleys in our hospitals and, in regards to ICU beds, we have fewer than half of OECD rates. I say this very genuinely but what does it say about Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil in government and about our priorities as a country in regard to those statistics? If the Government was a business, it would be run out of town. These reveal a national shambles in relation to people who are seeking public healthcare. Can the Taoiseach stand over those figures?

First, in the past year and nine months, exceptional public support has been given to health, with over €4 billion in last year's budget, some of which was obviously within the context of Covid. The largest number of beds created in any one year was last year when 900 plus public beds were provided. That will continue to be extended into 2022. Increased capacity will continue. Unprecedented investment continues to be put into the public health system but also better innovation and reforms in terms of the flow through hospitals. Five million homecare hours were provided last year, for example, in respect of that.

There are 273 today on trolleys, not 2,000. We can check that but investment in capacity is key.

In September, the public health doctors were ordered to turn their backs and walk away from the schools. As a result, schools were left on their own with regard to Covid information, hoping that parents would inform them of a confirmed case. Schools were then left with a dilemma as to who to tell and what to tell them without the support of public health.

From next week, antigen tests will be offered to schoolchildren. This is very welcome. It is, again, down to the parents to inform the schools before the new testing regime can be invoked. There is still no backing forthcoming from the public health doctors. My question to the Taoiseach is, why are there no plans to provide public health support to schools in managing this pandemic?

There has been ongoing public health support to schools during the pandemic and the Minister for Education and her Department rely on public health supports. In the context of the antigen system that is being introduced, that is on foot of public health advice. It is the HSE's view that it is the parents who should contact the school in terms of their children who test positive.

There are hundreds of lorries and drivers outside Leinster House at the Merrion Street end today. Surely the Taoiseach is not oblivious to what is going on and the trouble that they are in. The Taoiseach must realise that they cannot carry on for much longer.

This day last year, diesel fuel cost €1.15 a litre. Today, it is €1.60 for the same amount.

The increase is 33%. They are not able to carry that. A levy of 2% of taxes on a litre at €1.60 yields way more than when it was €1.15 last year. I am asking the Government to do something about its tax take. A rate of 13.5% is applied on top of the carbon tax and everything else.

Just one other thing. On the rebate, I am asking the Government to increase the diesel rebate from 7.5 cent to 15 cent or 16 cent.

The Taoiseach to respond.

There are doing something in other countries and Biden is doing something in America.

The Taoiseach to respond.

We must do something here for those fellows because there will be no food on the shelves and we have to realise that that is going to happen.

Deputy, we are eating into the time for a reply.

As I said already, I accept there is globally a massive increase in energy and fuel prices. It is across Europe and across the world. We do not have much room for manoeuvre on that at all, as has been suggested. Factually, that is the position. We all need to deal in facts on that.

The Government is taking more.

I take the Deputy's point on the rebate scheme. There is always potential around the rebate scheme. It has already been increased, as the Deputy knows, and that increase was maintained for 2022. There are other issues pertaining to the industry that we, and the Department in particular, are engaging with the industry and its official representatives on those issues.

Last week I raised with the Taoiseach the issue of the inability to recruit and retain staff in homecare services. Since then, several people have contacted me. I wish to put their stories on the record of the Dáil because it is really important. A woman rang me who is a healthcare worker. She said her mother lives with her. She is 89 years old and has advanced Alzheimer's. She has been in receipt of a HSE homecare package approved in May 2017, delivered via the private agency Care for Me. On 8 September 2021, the HSE allocation received a 14-day withdrawal notice of all care to her mother from Care for Me agency. At no time did the agency indicate it to her. She said she was informed by the HSE on 10 September of the notice. Care for Me did provide a certain amount of care in that time but last week it announced that all care had been withdrawn. She was given a list of private homecare providers to source and pay for herself. There is a crisis. What is the Government doing about it? Something has to be done for these people immediately and in the longer term.

On balance, it has to be acknowledged that very significant progress has been made on home support.

This is the reality on the ground, Taoiseach.

It is estimated that at the end of September 2021, some 15 million hours had been provided to over-----

We might have the capacity, but we do not have the personnel.

I refer to care that has been provided to 53,000 people. You get the impression sometimes coming in here that nothing at all is being done in any area.

For this family, nothing is being done.

This entails 2.2 million more hours compared to the same period last year. The waiting lists have come down from 7,800 in January 2020 to just over 400 in 2021. The Minister of State, Deputy Butler, has made a lot of progress on this and wants to make more progress on this and wants to make more. The Deputy is correct in that because we have made so much progress, there is now pressure on getting more staff in the homecare area. We will see what we can to do improve conditions to attract more people.

This is a woman who had care for the last number of years and it has been withdrawn.

The Taoiseach visited Tipperary university hospital, TUH, in Clonmel some weeks ago to open a new modular unit. He was taken on a tour of the hospital. Like many hospitals across the country, it is under huge pressure. When I visited it last Friday evening, it was at 111% capacity. When the Taoiseach was there three weeks ago, they put plans for the St. Michael's unit before him. With that they could provide 33 extra beds at a very reasonable cost, which they envisage as one third of the cost of normal infrastructure. Depending on rising building costs, these 33 beds could be provided at a cost of between €7 and €9 million. The Taoiseach told hospital management that day that it was low-hanging fruit that needs to be delivered by the HSE. Have we made progress on getting these extra 33 beds for TUH? Will he give the House a progress report?

I did not realise that the Deputy was writing down everything I was saying in an informal capacity.

I do for important things like that, Taoiseach.

I always admire the innovation of hospital managers who, as we open one facility, hurriedly move you on to the next facility that they want to develop. I do take the point. I spoke to the Minister for Health and have spoken to the HSE chief executive officer on that project. It is a ready-made project that would provide 33 extra beds with a degree of investment. It makes sense to me and we will continue to push for its provision.

I do not know if the Taoiseach is a fan of TikTok but the latest video on the HSE's TikTok account has over 862,000 views so it is a really powerful tool for communicating important health information to the younger generation. However, nothing is being posted about antigen testing. Covid is in our communities. We know how difficult it is to get a PCR test and that there is uncertainty about when you should take an antigen test and how you should do it properly. Current advice is that you should do an antigen test if you do not have symptoms of Covid 19 and if you are regularly in what are classed as high-risk environments such as nightclubs, bars, restaurants, concert venues, cinemas or theatres. Will the Government use social media platforms such as TikTok and Instagram to roll out an information campaign on antigen testing to target young people and show people how to do antigen tests properly on videos? It is a practical intervention that the Taoiseach could make today.

The HSE and the Government have consistently used online platforms across the board on public health messaging generally and on information on Covid 19. There have been specific programmes for online platforms for quite some time. I will take up the matter on antigen testing but that is the next phase.

I raise the issue of school places in Dublin West. The Chief Whip will know that this is an issue that happens annually. It was first raised in 1995 when the community council produced a report on school places because of the massive surge in house building over the past 30 years in Dublin West. There is a vast oversubscription for Castleknock Community College. Edmund Rice College, which it is hoped will go into its new school building in the summer, is oversubscribed. Le Chéile Secondary School, Tyrrelstown, is oversubscribed, as are the schools in Ongar. The new Hansfield Educate Together National School is now oversubscribed. St. Patrick's National School, Diswellstown, had 177 applications and has 122 places. I was contacted by a parent yesterday to say she had a child in the school already and now has to look at a different school. What will the Government do for those who have to pass by their local school while bringing their children to school? We are talking about climate change. This is an extremely important issue.

We have to increase the capacity of existing schools or build new schools with population growth. In the public school programme, priority has always been given to areas of high development potential and growth.

I raise the concern expressed by hundreds of thousands of national lottery players who have supported a good cause for many years and whose confidence has wavered in recent times by virtue of the main prize having been rolled over for almost six months. It is a precedent which was set in 1913 in Monte Carlo and later in Las Vegas. Given the important work done by the national lottery and the public confidence needed to support it, I suggest it is appropriate to refer the matter to the Committee on Budgetary Oversight and the Minister, with the possibility of the regulator appearing before the committee to expedite the review already in hand in the Minister's Department.

I have noted of late Deputy Durkan's tenacity and persistence on the issue of the lottery and the need for somebody to win the prize. It could be taken up by the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach. I think the Deputy is a member. It should invite the regulator which governs the licensing of the lotto. We all have high estimations of ourselves but my capacity to produce a winner in the lottery is something that I do not think is in my grasp right now. However, I wish Deputy Durkan continued success in his efforts to achieve this.

Today I am publishing the results of an online survey on the cost of living. Over 14,400 people responded and 6,000 of those shared their stories. This exposes a cost of living crisis that is not being addressed by the Government. There was a pensioner eating the bare minimum because rising bills have left him with little by the end of the week. There was an early years educator having to choose between buying food and filling the car with petrol. There was a nurse whose paltry 1% pay rise through pay restoration has been negated by the rise in the price of diesel. There is a lone parent struggling to pay rent whose ten-year-old child has asked Santa to help his mother. I could go on. Household energy bills were the biggest concern of 93% of respondents. The Taoiseach has this morning outlined what he cannot do but I am asking him do what he can do, that is, establish a discretionary fund to help people with utility debt. He should stop referring to the fuel allowance, which is extremely limited. What was announced in the recent budget in relation to eligibility for the allowance will only extend it to a possible 7,800 households, 4,400 of which will not see that until January. Will the Taoiseach look at a discretionary fund?

Fundamentally, as we have said there has been a significant increase in inflation across the world and it is driving pricing. Through taxation measures the Deputy opposed in the budget, we have made an effort to give some assistance to people, especially working people, in meeting costs. We did so also through social protection increases.

Working people do not get the fuel allowance.

That said, we are looking at other measures to get electricity bills down for households. We also want to build more houses because the best way for people to have affordable housing and reduced energy prices is for properly A-rated housing to be built, including public housing and so on.

This winter, Taoiseach.

We need to allow that to happen. Every day we oppose big housing projects, we stop ordinary people-----

This is happening now.

-----from getting access to housing-----

Does the Taoiseach live in the real world?

-----where they could live with a decent quality of life and with reduced costs. I have, of late, been in some of the local authority houses and approved social housing body houses that have been built-----

I find that hard to believe.

-----and from an energy point of view, they are working and costs are way down.

I am asking the Taoiseach the same question I asked his predecessor a few years ago. In the time since little has been done to help people who have neurological problems. Today, the Parkinson's Association of Ireland is over in Buswells Hotel doing a presentation, led by Tony Wilkinson of Bandon, who has been at the forefront in the fight for neurology nurses. Does the Taoiseach know we have 24,000 people seeking an appointment with a neurology nurse? Of these, 8,000 are waiting over 19 months. To keep up with other modern countries across the world, Ireland should have 142 specialised neurology nurses but we only have 42. We should have 20 such nurses in County Cork alone but sadly for those with Parkinson's or other ailments, we have only four nurses, leaving people urgently seeking help that is not there. Will the Taoiseach work with the Minister for Health to immediately address this issue?

I will indeed. We have expanded neurological services. They need to be further expanded and I will work with the Minister for Health and the HSE to advance that.

I wish to draw the Taoiseach's attention to what we spoke about earlier on, namely, the increase in energy and fuel costs and how it is affecting society and the economy. On one side, you have marginalised people and people on limited incomes who cannot afford to pay for the fuel for their houses. They are making choices, as was said earlier, between food or being warm. Outside the gates today are the hauliers. The cost to them has not seeped down yet but it will be passed on to the general economy and those who are availing of the transport of goods to and from Europe or around the country. Jobs will be affected and so will individuals' lives unless the Government intervenes to provide appropriate supports for those who need them, especially during Christmas, and thereafter to address in a radical way the cost of diesel for hauliers.

There are two points there. As I said yesterday and today, we are monitoring this very closely and working out how best we can help to reduce household bills for people in terms of electricity. We are conscious also of the huge pressures on hauliers that have arisen due the general global increase in pricing caused by the economic rebound resulting from the relaxation of Covid measures throughout the summer and early autumn.

Page 45 of the programme for Government states the Government will "Ensure capacity for a COVID-19 rapid response, including bed and ICU capacity and for non-COVID emergencies into the longer term, by utilising some private hospital capacity, if necessary."

The people have been wonderful during this pandemic, as have the front-line staff. However, in a recent radio interview, the chief executive of University Hospital Limerick stated the hospital had 12 ICU beds, 16 high-dependency beds and 13 people in the ICU. She said staffing requirements meant the hospital could only deal with another three ICU cases. Given the current high demand for ICU beds at University Hospital Limerick, the fact the Taoiseach is a former Minister for Health, as are three of his colleagues in government, and that we are almost two years in to the Covid pandemic, will the Taoiseach outline what steps have been taken to ensure there is additional capacity to increase the number of available ICU beds at the hospital?

We are very conscious of the pressures on University Hospital Limerick. Surge plans remain in place and are being activated as needed with the HSE's critical care major surge working group providing support to all hospitals. Very significant funding of €52 million was provided by the Government in budget 2021 to add an additional 66 beds in Limerick and the HSE has advised 42 of these beds are now open, bringing baseline capacity to 297. They include ten additional critical care beds in Limerick, of which six are in new-build capacity. Again, whatever we can do in the immediate term we will do, resource-wise. We accept additional resources will be required at Limerick.

Over the weekend, the Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces said Ireland is in the front line of a cyberwar. Yesterday saw the publication of the electronic communication security measures for consultation by the Government and the Government also endorsed the EU toolbox on 5G cybersecurity, so there are clear issues of security here. Has the Taoiseach confidence in the security of our mobile telephone networks? Has he confidence in his own mobile phone and those of Ministers, decision-makers and other people of interest here? How long will it take to update the security in this area given we are about two years behind other countries in this regard?

There is no doubt but that cybersecurity threats are ongoing and serious for all countries across Europe. Europe tends to work collaboratively in response to such threats. One needs to be alert that the potential for a whole range of actors out there to intercept or attempt to intercept communications is always there. We must be very vigilant in relation to it.

The protests outside by hauliers are just the latest manifestation of the huge problems large numbers of working people, people on lower incomes, hauliers, taxi drivers and many others are having with the cost of living and the cost of energy and fuel. The Taoiseach asked that we give some suggestions. We have given suggestions. Under section 61 of the Consumer Protection Act 2007, the Government can issue an emergency order and control the price of energy and fuel. It should do that. That is what is required to deal with these price hikes that are devastating people's ability to go to work or heat their homes as we enter into the coldest period of the year. Will the Government introduce caps and controls to reduce the price of energy and fuel?

Again, that is far easier said than done and may have wider implications that could also be negative, in terms of a sustained approach to deal with an energy crisis. There are other mechanisms the Government can avail of that we have availed of, such as the rebate scheme.

I am going to give Deputies Alan Farrell and Aindrias Moynihan a minute each as we are running out of time.

Tomorrow is the start of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, Orange the World campaign to highlight its aim of ending violence against women. The Ceann Comhairle has agreed to my request to light the obelisk on Leinster Lawn tomorrow as part of that campaign. Will the Taoiseach commit to fulfilling the programme for Government commitment to implementing a plan for future refuge space on the publication of the review of domestic violence accommodation provision currently under way?

The retained firefighters in Ballincollig have provided a phenomenal service to their community over a great many years. There is a huge concern locally that City Hall is now closing the fire station there. The full-time crew who were temporarily there have gone back to Anglesea Street and there not enough retained firefighters to operate the station as it is. There are 18 additional firefighters recruited and finishing out their training.

It would make sense, as the city is growing westward, to have a crew operating a fire service from the western side of the city in the new fire station in Ballincollig. It just does not stack up to have a new fire station empty. I ask the Taoiseach to raise this issue with city hall authorities and impress on them the value of having a fire service based locally in Ballincollig.

I responded yesterday to the issue raised by Deputy Farrell. We are confident of fulfilling the Government commitment to this, especially by providing more refuges, accommodation, supports and capacity.

In respect of Deputy Ó Muineacháin's point, I understand a number of retained firefighters in Ballincollig have been successful in securing whole-time positions with Cork city fire service. That has resulted in vacancies in the retained fire service in Ballincollig. Cork City Council has moved a crew of whole-time firefighters to Ballincollig as a temporary measure pending restoration of a retained service. Provision of a retained fire service in Ballincollig remains the objective of the city council and a new recruitment campaign is planned for retained firefighters in Ballincollig. It is hoped that suitable candidates in Ballincollig will be interested in taking up roles as retained firefighters and that the local business community will consider facilitating any staff who go forward for this valuable community service. Since the incorporation of Ballincollig fire station into the Cork City Council fire service, arrangements for staffing of the council's fire service have been the subject of discussions between the council and staffing interests, which takes on board what the Deputy said. This process will probably enhance the service in Ballincollig over time.