Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Friday, 23 Apr 2021

Vol. 275 No. 8

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Pyrite Remediation Programme

I welcome the Minister of State. He will be aware of the detail of the matter I am raising. I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting it for inclusion on this morning's agenda. This matter relates to the difficult and serious issue of pyrite and mica, although I will concentrate on pyrite. I acknowledge the enormous amount of work Councillor Mark Duffy from Ballina, County Mayo, has done on this issue. It was he who first contacted me about the matter and he has persistently contacted me since on behalf of the people he represents in County Mayo. Many of the Minister's party colleagues in the constituency, including the former Minister, have worked exceptionally hard on the issue but the reality is that this issue is creating havoc. Many thousands of houses will potentially be exposed to pyrite-related damage.

We know there is a pyrite remediation scheme but it is not adequate. It is a good attempt. It goes 90% of the way but ideally it should go the full way. There are concerns that, if we are to retrofit, upgrade or improve houses, particularly those affected by pyrite and mica, today's standards would apply rather than the standards of a few years ago. It makes sense. There are additional difficulties in that, if some people need to demolish houses, there may be a requirement for planning permission. There has been movement there but it is still very awkward.

A young family with children whose home has been identified as having serious problems with pyrite or mica in Donegal, where this issue is particularly prevalent, will have to leave their home, pay rent for an alternative premises and service a mortgage on a property that is completely finished and must be demolished and broken down onto the ground. Such families will have to rent new accommodation, make the planning arrangements and clear the site. Some of them are getting funding, although not all. This problem affects both private houses and local authority houses and these are being dealt with through different mechanisms. There is again a major problem in that regard.

It is clear that we need to look again at the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, grants. That is important. Everyone I have spoken to, and to whom members of the Minister of State's party have also spoken, has said that it does not make sense not to address the issue if houses are being restructured or rebuilt.

I will now turn to the issue of mica in Buncrana in Donegal, where Councillor Nicholas Crossan is constantly campaigning to have the issue addressed. There is a problem. These properties are affected by both defective bricks and defective construction and this has the potential to render people homeless and leave them in debt. It is important that Government deal with Banking and Payments Federation Ireland to see if some kind of moratorium, suspension or freeze with regard to mortgages could be implemented when people are negotiating. The financial cost to those who own these properties is enormous, whether they are the occupiers, landlords or local authorities, as they are in many cases. We have to support people who have financial commitments and who have to find alternative accommodation in their communities because that is where their families are and where their children go to school, and for a whole range of other reasons.

This is a terrible situation for people to find themselves in. Many of those to whom I refer are having difficulties anyway as a result of issues relating to Covid, employment and income. The Minister of State knows that. I do not believe anyone in this House doubts that there is a need for supports. I ask that we take a fresh look at this issue and see if we can support local representative in these communities to help and support the people they represent in these homes, which are effectively condemned, and to stand in solidarity and empathy with them.

I thank the Senator for raising this case and for the opportunity to provide an update on behalf of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage on this matter. I appreciate that the issue of defective concrete blocks is particularly emotive for households and I sympathise with all those affected by this distressing situation.

The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage met members of the Donegal Mica Action Group earlier this year and one of the issues raised was that of finance and the potential role banks could play in assisting affected homeowners.

As oversight of the financial institutions is outside the scope and remit of the Department, the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, wrote to the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, in respect of this matter. The latter replied on 9 March and expressed firm support for the existing provisions of the defective concrete blocks grant scheme, but clarified that neither he nor his Department have any role in respect of the commercial discussions of individual regulated entities, such as the decisions they may make on an application for credit or in respect of any individual actions they may take to assist households with a mortgage that is secured on a residence affected by mica or pyrite.

The Minister for Finance also pointed out that the commercial independence of the banks in which the State has a shareholding interest is specifically provided for in a legally binding relationship framework document which states that each bank continues to be a separate economic unit with independent powers of decision and that it is the respective boards and management of each bank that determines its commercial policies and conducts its day-to-day operations. The Minister for Finance further stated that he is precluded from any involvement in the commercial decisions of such banks and it would not be possible or appropriate for him to intervene with individual banks on this matter.

The defective concrete blocks grant scheme is not a compensation scheme. It is very much a scheme of last resort for homeowners who have no other practical options to obtain some form of redress. In formulating the scheme, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage concluded that a contribution of 10% from affected homeowners was appropriate to control costs, incentivise the use of appropriate remediation options and promote the reuse of materials where this is feasible. The aim of this scheme is to help insofar as possible to reinstate the applicant's home to the condition it would have been in had the original block work not been affected by pyrite or mica. There is no impediment to applicants seeking to upgrade or improve their homes but the excess costs will be borne by the homeowner. However, the Department is engaging with the SEAI to explore synergies between its existing grant schemes and the defective concrete blocks grant scheme. The scheme is fair and equitable and will work for the vast majority of homeowners. As the application process only opened in June 2020, it would be premature to consider or make any changes to the scheme at this time but, of course, the Department is monitoring its roll-out and effectiveness.

I recognise that the pyrite remediation scheme is a scheme of last resort and that the Minister for Finance cannot interfere with the banks in the context of either their commercial viability or independence. However, that is very hard to swallow when one's house is in bits and falling down. It is very difficult to accept that citizens paid the price to support these banks - it made sense to do so - and the State has a major role in the banks and it made sense to do so, but the Minister and the Government say they can do nothing to help people whose houses are crumbling before their eyes. It really is a scheme of last resort. I do not wish to argue with the Minister of State. I do not doubt his credentials or support. We have to talk about supporting people. This is about homes. The former Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Ring, has a strong record on this issue and has made several promises on it. It is important that there is some synergy and commonality about the approach across the House. I ask the Minister of State to keep the issue under review because it is not going away. Those affected are his constituents and those of all Oireachtas Members. They are citizens who are desperate and who need our support.

I thank the Senator. He is correct that I will be conveying his remarks to the Minister later today. As outlined, there is a commitment to keep the issue under review.

Heritage Sites

I thank the Minister of State for being here to take this matter. My question relates to heritage and the portfolio of the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan. I am particularly delighted that the Minister of State, Deputy Brophy, is here because he totally understands the building about which I wish to speak, given his family connections with the O'Briens in Ardfinnan. I would be shocked if he has not visited the premises in question.

Knocklofty House, just outside Grange on the Ardfinnan to Clonmel road, is an 18th-century house, which was home to Lord and Lady Donoughmore. It is listed as a protected structure under the Tipperary county development plan, as well as being included in the national inventory of architectural heritage for its artistic, historical, social and architectural significance. The building is a former hotel and hosted numerous weddings within the locality of Grange and Ardfinnan. It is where I learned to swim and anyone my age would remember that Martin Daly used to do swimming classes every Saturday morning. My mother brought me and my brothers there to go swimming, and I would be surprised if the Minister of State, Deputy Brophy, has not been there himself in the summer months.

Pictures emerged two weeks ago of the current state of the building, and to say it is in a shocking state is not an exaggeration in any way. When anyone drives into Knocklofty House at the moment, they will see that the surface is like the moon with the number of potholes. If they look to the left, what used to be beautiful fields are now taken over by rubbish. There has been mistreatment of animals and, in particular, horses in recent years. To be fair, the county council has tried its best to control this but it has not been totally successful.

The pictures that surfaced have angered locals to the extent that they have set up a Facebook page with almost 1,300 members. They are deeply upset by the state of the building and they have asked the council to get involved. In fairness, local Councillors, McGrath, English and Murphy, with many others, have contacted the county council and they have acted. They went out and did an internal and external assessment of the building, and a report will be prepared as a result. I thank them for that.

In these times, county councils are limited in what they can do due to funding constraints. The work that needs to be done to preserve this historic building, which is an obligation on the State, needs more than just the support of the county council. I ask the Minister of State, as someone who knows this area quite well and who has an allegiance to the region, to ask the Minister of State, Deputy Malcolm Noonan, to intervene at departmental level to support the restoration and preservation of this building. This has happened with other buildings across the country, such as Glengarriff Castle, which is being preserved and restored at the moment.

Knocklofty House is a beautiful site, on the banks of the River Suir, with beautiful lands. Any local person I speak to at the moment says they are extremely upset. This used to be a beautiful place to go for a walk, and people do not want to lose that character or lose the importance of it. The Department has the historic structures fund and the built heritage investment scheme. I call on the Department to use some of that money towards this project to preserve and maintain it.

Before I begin the official reply, I want to make a personal comment. As the Senator said, I know this area well as my mother's family parish is Ardfinnan. Knocklofty House is an absolute treasure. It was so disappointing to hear the description the Senator gave because, from my early earliest years as a child, going down on holidays every summer and looking out at Knocklofty House, and then attending functions later on, it was an absolute treasure for the area. It is stunningly beautiful in its location on the banks of the river, and it is so sad to hear this. I will convey to the Minister of State, Deputy Malcolm Noonan, the Senator's comments and my own thoughts on this and on the need for action.

The functions of the Minister of State with responsibility for heritage and electoral reform with regard to the protection of architectural heritage are set out in the Planning and Development Acts, as are the responsibilities of local authorities and owners. The Act gives primary responsibility to local authorities to identify and protect the architectural heritage by including particular structures on the record of protected structures, RPS.

The National Inventory of Architectural Heritage, NIAH, was established by the Department with responsibility for heritage in 1999 to identify, record, and evaluate our post-1700 architectural heritage. The Minister of State with responsibility for heritage and electoral reform, Deputy Noonan, can make recommendations to planning authorities for structures to be included on the RPS arising from the NIAH surveys.

Knocklofty House, County Tipperary, was recorded by the NIAH in 2005 and was recommended by the then Minister to Tipperary County Council for inclusion on the RPS. I am informed that Knocklofty House was added. The outbuildings, gate lodge and gates are also included on the RPS. Inclusion on Tipperary's RPS places a duty of care on the owners and also gives the local authority powers to seek to safeguard its future. I am advised that the county council has opened an enforcement file on Knocklofty House. It has confirmed that an initial site inspection was undertaken and more thorough inspections will be required internally and externally to determine the appropriate course of action to ensure this building is protected. The county council further advises that it will need to gain access to the building. It understands that the legal ownership of the property is being questioned currently and is being dealt with through the courts.

The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage provides financial support to owners for the protection of heritage buildings and historic structures through the historic structures fund, HSF, and the built heritage investment scheme, BHIS. The Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, recently announced €3 million in funding under the BHIS and details of projects to be awarded under the HSF will be announced shortly. While it is understood that the scale of investment needed for the structure mentioned may mean that the level of grant funding available under these schemes would not, on its own, be sufficient, it may provide some support to safeguard it from falling into further disrepair.

The Minister of State fully understands and appreciates the value of our built heritage, including at local level, and has asked officials in his Department to remain in contact with Tipperary County Council on this matter.

I thank the Minister of State for his response and the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, for keeping in contact with Tipperary County Council. I am not sure how long we have left to preserve Knocklofty House. The building is in dire condition. Lead and metal are being robbed from the place and assessments and reports will show that not much time is left. The State has an obligation to support historic structures such as Knocklofty House. The longer we wait to do that, the more it will cost to preserve. If we have an obligation in this regard, we should act now. I ask that the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, visit the site and meet some of the locals who have spoken on the matter.

If the Minister of State, Deputy Brophy, is in Ardfinnan during the summer, if we are allowed to travel outside our countries, I would love to bring him around Knocklofty House. Like me, he has great memories of the place. He would be shocked to see how it has been abandoned and let go. I would appreciate if he could convey my request that the Minister of State with responsibility for heritage visit the area and meet officials of Tipperary County Council to discuss the future of the building.

I will certainly ask the Minister of State to visit. If we are allowed travel, the Senator can rest assured that I will most definitely be in Ardfinnan this summer. I will call him and we can do that together. As I said, Knocklofty House is an amazing building and heritage site. It is vital to so many people in the area that a preservation order be placed on it to ensure it does not deteriorate further. I am willing to come down and take a look. I look forward to that visit when inter-county travel is allowed.

Vaccination Programme

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, to the House. As this is my first time addressing him formally since his appointment, I formally congratulate him and commend him on the work he has done so far.

I have tabled this matter because I am concerned about the roll-out of the human papillomavirus, HPV, vaccine. Those concerns have been shared by the family of Laura Brennan. Members will recall the fantastic work in promoting the uptake of the HPV vaccine Laura Brennan did before her death. It was phenomenal work, the result of which was that the level of uptake of the vaccine reached 82% in the 2019-20 academic year. We are all fully aware of the immense challenges that have been posed by the Covid-19 pandemic but this vaccine is extremely important. It is critical to the future health of girls and boys. A lot of advancement has happened and the fact that the vaccine is being offered to boys in first and second year, as well as girls, is extremely welcome and take-up has been successful.

The pandemic caused difficulties, particularly in the delivery of the programme within schools. It is well-recognised that giving the vaccine in schools has resulted in a significantly higher uptake. We need to think outside the box. We have had vaccine capacity in some of the Covid-19 vaccine centres over the past number of months, and probably will have in the future. There is absolutely no reason the HPV vaccine could not be offered in those settings. Many trained vaccinators have still not been redeployed to the Covid-19 programme and while they are waiting to take up those roles, perhaps they could be redeployed into roles giving this particular vaccine.

The pharmacists in this country are willing and able to deliver the vaccine but that has not happened. Perhaps the Minister of State has some news for me in that regard. It is terrible that Laura Brennan's family has to go on the radio and campaign to keep highlighting this issue. It should be a matter of form that every possible resource is used to deliver this important vaccine.

There are other issues about which I am concerned. It has been brought to my attention that some parents of young people had a certain hesitancy about taking up the vaccine but, having done further research, realised, as we all do, that it is important to take it. When they then went to try to source the vaccine privately, they were quoted figures between €400 and €600. Receiving this vaccine should not be cost punitive. There should be some little fee, perhaps €40 to €60, which would represent a 90% reduction on the €400 to €600 that is being quoted. We need to encourage people to take the vaccine and if, for whatever reason, they opt to do so privately, we should meet them along the way and encourage them, not put obstacles in their way. That is a significant cost to any family and many families would not be in a position to pay it.

The Minister of State might update me on where we are with 2021-22 academic year, as it approaches. He might also tell me is there any thinking outside the box within the Department in terms of using the resources that are there at the moment and using future resources. What is being done to facilitate a catch-up programme? Will he also address the punitive cost for people who decide to source a vaccine privately and may have been too late to avail of the public roll-out?

I thank the Senator for bringing this matter to the floor of the Seanad. I apologise on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, who cannot be here. I too acknowledge the good work that the Brennan family are doing in their advocacy and highlighting the positivities of this vaccination.

In 2009, the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, recommended HPV vaccination for girls of 12 and 13 to reduce their risk of developing cervical cancer as adults. In September 2010, the HPV vaccination programme was introduced for all girls in the first year of secondary school. In 2013, NIAC recommended that the HPV vaccine should also be given to boys. On foot of NIAC's recommendation, the Department of Health asked HIQA to undertake a health technology assessment to establish the clinical effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of extending the current immunisation programme to include boys in the first year of secondary school. A policy decision was made to extend the HPV immunisation programme to include boys, starting in September 2019, with the introduction of a 9-valent HPV vaccine.

The ages at which vaccines are recommended in the immunisation schedule are chosen by NIAC to give each child the best possible protection against vaccine-preventable diseases. As the HPV vaccine is preventative, it is intended to be administered, if possible, before a person becomes sexually active, that is, before a person is first exposed to HPV infection. Therefore, the gender-neutral HPV vaccination programme targets all girls and boys in the first year of secondary school to provide maximum coverage.

The roll-out of the school-based immunisation programme, which includes HPV vaccination, is the responsibility of the HSE. It is important to note that the school-based immunisation programme for the 2019-20 academic year has been completed and that the uptake rates in respect of the HPV vaccine for that academic year were 82% for the first dose and 77% for the second. This is the highest rate of uptake under the HPV vaccination programme since 2015-16, and it is particularly encouraging because it was the first year that boys were included in the programme. It shows that the provision of the vaccine in the community clinics did not adversely affect uptake.

The programme for the academic year 2020-21 was paused during the first few months of 2021 due to school closures and the redeployment of staff of the Covid-19 immunisation programme. The inputting of uptake information for the school-based programme has also been delayed due to the redeployment of administrative staff. However, community healthcare organisations have reported that the vast majority of second level schools had their first dose of the HPV vaccine delivered between October 2020 and December 2020. The uptake rate for the first dose of the HPV vaccine in the 2020-21 academic year is 63%, and this figure is expected to increase because data input on the vaccine uptake is ongoing. Plans are now being developed by the HSE for the recommencement of the vaccination programmes, including the second dose of the HPV vaccine. Some areas have already recommenced these programmes and are in the process of arranging school visits.

I thank Senator Conway for raising this matter today. I assure him that, on foot of his recommendations, I will relay the suggestions he has made on the floor of the Seanad to the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly. In talking about capacity in our Covid-19 vaccination centres, we should note that while the Covid vaccine roll-out is going well, capacity issues are not just sorted yet. Obviously, the priority is to use those centres for what they were designed. I undertake to relay to the Minister the suggestions made today.

I thank the Minister of State for the update and I acknowledge the progress that has been made but I seek further clarity on a meaningful catch-up programme to get the figures up to what they should be, bearing in mind that we are in a pandemic, and on the role pharmacists throughout the country can play in delivering the HPV vaccine to young girls and boys aged 12 and 13. Where people have to go private to get the vaccine for their children, the cost, between €400 and €600, needs to be borne by the State. A total cost at least 90% less than the current one needs to be considered.

I appreciate the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, coming into the House today and hope he will pass on those points to the Minister. We will revisit the issue in a few months.

I thank Senator Conway. I reassure him that I will raise this matter with the Minister, Deputy Donnelly. I reiterate that the academic year 2019-20 saw the highest uptake of the HPV vaccination programme since 2015 and 2016. That is a positive and encouraging development. It goes without saying there have been challenges in this latest academic year but the HSE is committed to offering the recommended immunisation to school-aged children with as little disruption as possible. That has recommenced and I hope it will be concluded successfully before the end of this academic year.

Cancer Services

The Minister of State is very welcome to the House. It is great to see him. It is the first time I have had the privilege of speaking to him in the Chamber. I am raising this Commencement matter on breast cancer services and cancer screening in general, which is of major concern to me. Currently, people are not being screened due to the restrictions, which is understandable, but they are not getting the cancer treatment they need. We must make certain that we as a Government ensure the resumption and continuation of cancer screening services and that the system is adequately resourced to allow us catch up on screening.

I raise this Commencement matter today specifically to highlight breast cancer screening and the fact that the national screening service, NSS, advises that the current round of screening, which is usually 24 months, potentially will take 36 months due to the impact of Covid-19. To highlight the prevalence of breast cancer, one in nine women in Ireland will be diagnosed with breast cancer. It is the second most prevalent cancer in the world. In 2016, 85,500 people in Europe died from breast cancer. It is a major concern of mine.

I am hearing from many women about the lack of capacity in the system. Some may choose to pay for it, and Senator Conway said that if you choose to pay, you can get the health service you need. This two-tier system is intolerable and highlights, as Senator Conway said also, the need for universal healthcare here. An individual's health should not be disadvantaged by his or her ability to pay. We need to examine the capacity of private screening because if you want private screening, you can get it within a week and not have to wait. We need to expand that private screening capacity for the benefit of public patients.

I have been working with Councillor Teresa Costello, who is a member of Dublin City Council. I commend her on her incredible work. She is a young woman who is a breast cancer survivor. She set up one of the largest support communities for breast cancer patients in the country called Breast Friends. She would like me to highlight on behalf of all the women in the country that more and more women are being diagnosed with breast cancer. Thirty per cent of all women who get a breast cancer diagnosis are between the ages of 20 and 50, 34% are between the ages of 50 and 69, and 36% are older than 70. As the Minister of State is aware, the screening is only for women between the ages of 50 and 69, which means we are missing and not screening 66% of breast cancer patients. I urge him to bring the message to the Minister that we need to expand that screening capacity to include women from the age of at least 40 and up.

I ask also that there would be a breast cancer awareness campaign to ensure every woman, younger and older, is empowered to check her breasts manually for signs of cancer. General practitioners might work with the Department to provide for that manual check and the automatic ability to get a mammogram if a woman is under 50 years of age, because if they have a concern, they are not automatically referred to BreastCheck. That is a real issue for me and for many women.

I would appreciate it if the Minister of State could bring those notes back to the senior Minister on screen enhancement for all women, a manual check to be carried out by a GP, and an awareness campaign.

First, I thank Senator McGreehan for giving me the opportunity to update the House on this important matter in behalf of the Minister, Deputy Donnelly. The Government is fully committed to supporting our population screening programmes, which are a valuable part of our health service. As the Senator is aware, BreastCheck, along with other cancer screening programmes, was temporarily paused last year due to the impact of Covid-19 on both our health services and communities. While BreastCheck resumed in October 2020, unfortunately it had to be paused again, and issued new invitations in January and February of this year.

I am pleased to inform the Senator that it has resumed again last month with more than 8,000 participants having been screened. The programme has done a great amount of work to support the safe resumption of screening by taking measures to reduce the risk of Covid-19 infection to the participants and staff.

The focus of the resumption of breast screening includes the management of capacity across the whole screening pathway, which includes follow-up assessments and treatments. I would like it to be noted that even when screening was paused, the programme continued to operate follow-up clinics. Breast screening involves close contact between staff and participants, and with Covid-19 safety measures in place, it will obviously take longer to get through the current screening round.

However, in Ireland we are fortunate in that we screen more frequently than many European countries, meaning it is expected we will still be in line with international norms for breast screening. An additional €10 million has been provided in 2021 for cancer screening services in the HSE national service plan.

One important initiative prioritised for 2021 is the development and opening of semi-permanent BreastCheck units in two locations. These new units and the recruitment of more staff will help to enhance the capacity of the programme. In line with the commitments in the programme for Government, BreastCheck is currently implementing an age extension project that will see all women aged between 50 and 69 years being invited for routine breast screening.

As to consideration of any further age changes, such as reducing the age to people under 50 years of age, as the Senator has suggested, it is vital we remember that breast screening is a population health screening measure and is not an individual diagnostic test. The balance between the benefits of screening and the potential harms or risks to the population as a whole require careful evidence-based consideration and balancing.

As with all national screening programmes, BreastCheck delivers its services in line with international criteria for population-based screening programmes that are kept under constant review. Decisions about changes to our national screening programmes will be made on the advice of our national screening advisory committee. This independent expert group considers the evidence for changes in a robust and transparent manner. This ensures policy decisions are informed by the best available evidence and advice. It may be of interest that the committee recently published its first annual report, which is available on the Department of Health’s website.

BreastCheck provides a lot of information for the public on its website breastcheck.ie. This includes educational materials to encourage women to be aware of general breast health and, crucially, the common symptoms they should seek medical advice on. It runs social and digital media campaigns and provides valuable information on its website, including regular updates on Covid-19.

I take this opportunity to emphasise that screening is for healthy people who do not have symptoms. People who are between screening appointments or are waiting for rescheduled appointments are asked to be aware of symptoms, and if they have concerns or worries, they should contact their GP who will arrange appropriate follow-up care. In light of all this, I trust that the public can be assured the Government is committed to our national screening programmes.

I thank the Minister of State and I very much welcome the additional €10 million. I am very aware of the development of and the increased funding in the breast and cancer services. I understand there is a balance of benefits between screening and potential harms.

However, at the moment, because they are not being automatically screened, many breast cancers are not being diagnosed. From brief research and talking to breast cancer survivors and patients, it is unfortunately clear that, because younger people are being diagnosed at a later date and not getting screened, they are being diagnosed with stage 4. Many of them are incurable.

There is helpful information on the websites but we need to bring that information to women more and to highlight it to empower young women and girls to check themselves. I would not be 100% certain about how to check myself. We have to know that. Just because someone is not in the category being screened, GPs must know they have an option to request a mammogram and check. I thank the Minister of State for his time and I hope he relays the matters I raise to the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly.

I thank the Senator. She has made a strong case and I will relay her suggestions to the Minister. To be fair to the Senator, she acknowledged the extra €10 million invested in the National Screening Service this year. That demonstrates the commitment of this Government to national cancer screening services.

I, too, compliment Councillor Teresa Costello on the really good advocacy work she has been doing. It takes guts and commitment for somebody who has come through what she has to turn a negative to a positive. She has been a strong advocate.

As I said, I commit to relaying to the Minister the points the Senator raised today.

We have a slight change of plan. I have spoken to the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, who can be back in the House in three or four minutes. In the meantime, the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, has agreed to take the final Commencement matter now if that is agreeable to the House? Is that agreed? Agreed.

Covid-19 Pandemic

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. Yesterday, there was an informal meeting of the World Trade Organization trade-related and intellectual property rules, TRIPS, council. Next week, there will be a formal meeting at which the WTO will decide on a proposal for a temporary TRIPS waiver of intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines, which would allow global south countries to scale up production and access to vaccines. This proposal is being brought by the World Health Organization and over 100 countries. I ask the Minister of State the position Ireland is taking on that proposal and the advocacy and engagement we are having with the European Commission on the position it will take at that crucial meeting on 30 April.

Months ago, the head of the World Health Organization warned us of the dangers of catastrophic moral failure. We know from Oxfam that nations with 14% of the world's population had 53% of the vaccines. The distribution of vaccines is not the really crucial issue, however. The crucial issue is the fact there is a limitation on supply. That limitation is not natural. It is a choice to limit the manufacture and supply of Covid-19 vaccines to protect profits. It is an artificial scarcity and a choice.

That choice is having a consequence. Around the world, deaths are escalating. Yesterday, there were 2,000 deaths in India and 2,000 deaths in Brazil. In India, just 1% of the population has been vaccinated. Those are choices. People are dying younger and the consequences are more severe. It is important to note the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, in its report on the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines for developing countries, was clear that if we do not provide equitable access, it will prolong the pandemic.

They also explicitly identified the TRIPS waiver as a mechanism which we should support, especially given that a similar waiver was crucial in combating AIDS and HIV in the past. It is important to remember that while a substantial portion of the world's population remains vulnerable to Covid-19, those are ideal grounds for the virus to develop new variants and grounds for experimentation for the virus. Those new variants will ultimately affect all of us. Many scientists say it could be six months or a year before there is a variant that is resistant to vaccines. That is unless we remove access to a significant portion of the world's population for this virus and its variants, something which we can choose to do if we scale up global manufacturing of vaccines. A significant portion of the money for developing these vaccines was public investment. The AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine received 97% public funding, Moderna was majority public funding, and Pfizer-BioNTech received €500 million from Germany alone. The public have invested in these vaccines and they must now be treated as a public good. This is one of the key moral decisions we will ever face.

There are structures in place through the Covid technology access programme, run by the World Health Organization, to ensure an appropriate, proper mechanism for the sharing of access and the roll-out of the know-how and technology. That is there and waiting. There is demand from more than half the world for us to take action. Will the Minister of State tell me two quick things? At yesterday's informal meeting, what position did Ireland push for on the TRIPS waiver? At the meeting on 30 April, will Ireland advocate for support for a TRIPS waiver? Will we contact the European Commission to ensure that it takes that position? I hope that the Minister of State is able to tell me that we will be doing the right thing.

I thank the Minister of State for his co-operation with the changed slot.

I thank Senator Higgins for raising this topic and affording me the opportunity to address the House about this important and timely issue. I have listened carefully and agree with many of the points that Senator Higgins has raised. The Senator will undoubtedly be aware that international trade is a competence of the EU under the treaties. In exercising that competence at the WTO, the European Commission engages with member states, including Ireland, through a variety of committees and working parties, including on intellectual property. The Senator will also be aware that the EU's current position on the proposed waiver is that the WTO international agreement on trade-related aspects of international property rights, TRIPS, allows countries the flexibility to respond to the concerns raised by the proposers of the waiver. Specifically, the TRIPS agreement allows compulsory licensing, which is when a Government permits an entity to produce the patented product or process without the consent of the patent owner.

The EU has argued that global manufacturing capacity, access to raw materials and the distribution networks are the main obstacles that need to be overcome. Increasing manufacturing capacity of vaccines may be better attained through voluntary licensing arrangements, by disseminating the technology and know-how of those who develop the vaccines. To this end, at EU level, the Commission has set up a task force for industrial scale-up of Covid-19 vaccine production. The task force is promoting partnership through matchmaking events. One such event took place at the end of March and identified 300 companies in the vaccine supply chain, including vaccine developers, manufacturing organisations and suppliers. The task force has engagement about the global supply chains and aims to launch new production sites in the EU to maximise production capacity.

I highlight that the EU position is that the intellectual property is not the primary obstacle to access to vaccines and instead argues that manufacturing capacity, access to raw materials and distribution networks are the main obstacles that need to be overcome. It acknowledges that increasing manufacturing capacity of vaccines may be better attained through voluntary licensing arrangements.

On that basis, I take this opportunity to strongly encourage pharmaceutical companies that have profited immensely and benefited from State investment to show leadership in this matter. They must seriously consider such licensing arrangements and voluntarily take the lead.

All of this is not to say that we, as a country, do not have a responsibility to speak out for what we believe is right. As other countries have reviewed their positions, it is incumbent on us to review ours, particularly in view of new and emerging information. This is a critical issue and it is morally right to ensure we have a fair and equitable system. I am firmly of the belief that no one is safe until everyone is safe. The past year has shown the necessity of working together towards a common goal and that, through collaboration, we can succeed in suppressing this virus. As a country, Ireland has always been a world leader in helping vulnerable people. An inequitable distribution of vaccines will lead to parts of the world falling behind. In an interconnected and global world, that is just not feasible. Therefore, we must, as a Government, feed back our concerns to the EU and the working groups. I certainly will take the concerns that have been articulated so passionately today by Senator Higgins to the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and the Tánaiste.

The intellectual property right that needs to be waived under the existing TRIPS structure is not simply to do with the patents. It is also about the intellectual property relating to manufacturing know-how. The WHO, UNAIDS and others who have worked on previous global health crises tell us that the TRIPS waiver is needed. We must listen to them. We are all very proud of Dr. Michael Ryan and his work at the WHO. Let us show that we are listening to him and his colleagues, as global experts.

It is absolutely crucial that the decision on 30 April is to support a TRIPS waiver. If not, then we should be very clear that this will be a moral failure. It is not sufficient that we replace a politics of principle with a politics of patronage, where we might matchmake one person with a few other people, encourage voluntarism from companies and see if one country could get another country to talk. That is a piecemeal, charity-based approach to what is a matter of global and collective human rights and health priority. I acknowledge that the Minister of State is hearing what I am saying. To be clear, the world will be watching on 30 April.

I reiterate what I said already. I acknowledge that this is a critical issue and I believe it is morally right to ensure that, regardless of where people are in the world, they have access to vaccines. We need a fair and equitable system. I firmly believe, as does the Government, that no one is safe until everybody is safe. Apart from being the morally right thing to do, it is also right from an economic perspective. Protecting one half of the world while leaving the other half behind will do no good for anybody.

We have a role to play in this. The issue at hand is a competency of the EU but we have channels through which we can feed our concerns. As a Government, we need to do that. We need a fair and equitable distribution of vaccines across the world. The Government must stand up and ensure that happens.

Public Transport

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, for coming to the House to deal with this matter, which relates to the proposed MetroLink service. An underground, integrated rail service for Dublin was first proposed in 2001. Twenty years later, we are still talking about putting in some sort of frequent underground service.

MetroLink is progressing. I understand Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, has been progressing its plans and intend lodging a railway order application. With the MetroLink project there is potential for a high-speed and frequent underground rail service from the city centre to the airport within 20 minutes. It is a hugely important project and it is one I am supportive of.

The reason I raise this in the Seanad is because TII is progressing with its project and I acknowledge the public consultations in which it has engaged and conducted during Covid-19, albeit over Zoom. However, the project will run all the way from Charlemont-St. Stephen's Green to O'Connell Street, where potentially there will be an exit onto the national monument site at Moore Street and O'Connell Street, on to just by the Mater campus on Berkeley Road, where it will have an entrance on the park at Berkeley Road and Eccles Street. The line will continue to Cross Guns Bridge in Glasnevin where there is a proposal to have a very significant train station following the demolition of some retail units and the historic Hedigan's pub. The line will run under residential properties from there, at Dalcassian, under Botanic Road and Mobhi Road to Griffith Park, on to Albert College Park, where there is a proposal for an overground shaft, and then beyond that to Ballymun, Collins Avenue and beyond.

The project has the potential to open up lands beyond Ballymun for housing and other regeneration. The project has a lot of positives but I have a couple of concerns that I would like the Minister of State to address. First, a commitment was given to do a feasibility study on extending the proposed MetroLink from Charlemont and west-south west of the city towards Terenure and Walkinstown. It is important that feasibility study is completed before any railway order application is made.

Second, I have described the route, and it is a very long route with significant residential communities, commercial properties and community facilities along the route. When metro north was proposed, I worked with the residents from the Griffith Avenue and district residents association. The Government at that time appointed an independent expert to support residents to engage in the process. It is critically important that an independent expert is appointed as soon as possible to support residents in this project.

I draw the attention of the Minister of State to the fact that residents are already receiving letters asking them to engage in the process. It is not fair to ask residents to engage in a process where they do not have any independent expert support. It is a huge project. The estimates are it will be in the region of €3-5 billion. Residents and property owners along this line are not equipped, no matter how well intentioned they are, to engage in a project and a process this significant without the support of an independent expert and his or her advice.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House.

On behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Ryan, I thank the Senator for the opportunity to address this issue in the House today.

As the House is aware, the Government is committed to a fundamental change in the nature of transport in Ireland. Part of that change is about investing in major public transport infrastructure projects such as MetroLink in Dublin. Investing in public transport benefits citizens through making it easier to travel to where they want to go. It benefits the environment through providing low carbon alternatives to the private car. It also benefits the economy through reducing congestion and making it easier for people to access jobs. I would like to think this House recognises those benefits and will work with the Government as we look to make these hugely important improvements to our transport system. Obviously, at local and community levels, there will be varying opinions and impacts about aspects of certain projects. One way of addressing these opinions and impacts is ensuring people have an opportunity to voice them and ensuring our State agencies put in place the type of extensive and inclusive consultation processes like we have seen happen with MetroLink.

MetroLink is a massive project and probably the largest ever seen in the State. It has been through extensive non-statutory public consultation to date.

These consultation processes have examined all aspects of the proposal, from the route itself to the type of service, the location of stations and how it links up with the rest of the public transport network. Projects like MetroLink benefit from that type of extensive public consultation. MetroLink certainly has. We have all seen how aspects of the project have changed as consultation periods took place during 2018 and 2019. Those consultations have informed the development of the project's preliminary business case which, in recent weeks, was submitted to the Department of Transport for review under the public spending code. As that review kicks off, work is continuing on developing all the necessary environmental assessments and planning documentation but submission of the preliminary business case is a really important milestone for the project. It means that, following this review, the project can be brought to the Government for approval to enter the statutory planning system. If approved by the Government, that statutory planning system will ensure that citizens have another chance to make their views known.

With regard to the specific location at Albert College Park, as the Senator is aware, the extensive planning, design and consultation on MetroLink has concluded that it is not an appropriate location for a station. I am informed that this decision is based on the proposed stations at Griffith Park and Collins Avenue. I am also told that, if a station was proposed for Albert College Park, considerably more land would be required than is required for the proposed ventilation shaft at the location, which would have knock-on implications for the construction schedule and the ultimate cost. However, I can confirm that Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, has committed to pay for independent expert advice and assistance for those local communities with alternative perspectives to develop their thinking ahead of the planning process. I understand this expert adviser will be available to the communities by June and I very much welcome the assistance being provided to these local communities by TII.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire Stáit. I appreciate his response. It is important that we note that, as the Minister of State said, this is going to be the biggest infrastructure project in the history of the State. Metro systems were built in London back in 1863, in Paris in 1900 and in New York in 1904. They are more than 100 years old. We are building infrastructure that is going to be here for decades to come. It is going to be here in 100, 150 or 200 years. I ask the Minister of State to go back to TII with regard to the issue of the Albert College Park site. I accept that he has been informed that this site was determined based on the location of the stations on either side of it but I urge him to ask TII to look at the Griffith Park site, the Collins Avenue site and the Albert College Park site. I ask him not to short-change the community in Ballymun and Glasnevin by giving them an overground shaft as opposed to a station. The people of Ballymun and the north side deserve a station as much as anybody else. I urge the Minister of State to ask TII to look at that element and to complete the feasibility study on the south-west route prior to proceeding with a railway order application.

The studies undertaken for the emerging preferred route alignment identified that locations close to Collins Avenue and at Griffith Avenue were appropriate for stations. If the provision of a station at Albert College Park was to be advanced, it would need to be in the same vicinity as the proposed intervention shaft. As noted at a recent meeting with residents' groups and local representatives, this would require a larger permanent land take than required for the intervention shaft. A larger construction area and a longer construction period would also be necessary. Overall, the cost of a station at this location would add considerably to the cost of the overall project and, accordingly, such provision is not considered to be appropriate given the other station locations and the characteristics of this location. I will take the Senator's points back to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, when I see him next.

To give a little more information about the assistance that will be provided to the residents, a tender process is under way to secure those services. The final return date for the closing stage of the independent expert competition is 17 May. This will be followed by a short evaluation period and the independent expert will be appointed as early as possible in June.

I thank the Minister of State for facilitating the changeover of time slots at the end of the Commencement matter debates.

Sitting suspended at 11.45 a.m. and resumed at 12.07 p.m.