Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 16 Nov 2021

Vol. 280 No. 4

An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business

The Order of Business is No. 1, motion regarding defence of legal proceedings by the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission, to be taken on conclusion of the Order of Business, without debate; No. 2, a motion regarding the arrangements for the address to the House by An Taoiseach on Thursday, 18 November 2021, to be taken on conclusion of No. 1 without debate;

No. 3, motion re Sectoral Employment Order (Construction Sector) 2021, back from committee, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 2, without debate; No. 4, motion re Planning and Development (Amendment) (Large-scale Residential Development) Bill 2021, instruction to committee, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 3, without debate; No. 5, Land and Conveyancing Law Reform Bill 2021 - Report and Final Stages, to be taken at 5 p.m. and the proceedings thereon shall, if not previously concluded, be brought to a conclusion at 6.30 p.m. by the putting of one question from the Chair, which shall, in relation to amendments, include only those set down or accepted by the Government; and No. 6, Planning and Development (Amendment) (Large-scale Residential Development) Bill 2021 - Committee Stage, to be taken at 6.45 p.m. or 15 minutes after the conclusion of No. 5, whichever is the later.

I call the leader of the Fianna Fáil grouping, Senator Chambers.

I agree with the Order of Business as outlined by the Leader of the House.

I raise the ongoing issue at the Belarusian-Polish border and reports that, on Monday, a young Syrian man was buried who had died in October because of the situation there. The situation is escalating. New sanctions have been imposed on the Lukashenko regime, those linked with that regime and those who are actively participating in the events at the border, with asset freezes, travel bans and so on, but it does not seem as if it is going far enough. It is a worrying situation and we do not see any end in sight.

It would be helpful to have the Minister for Foreign Affairs come to the Chamber at the earliest opportunity to have a discussion on the issue and to outline what steps the Government is taking at a European Union level to address it. The matter is deeply worrying. It is an attack on the European Union and our borders, and it is putting innocent lives at risk. We know that Belarus is actively encouraging migrants to go to the border and try to barge through, knowing full well what is there to meet them on the other side.

I ask that the Polish authorities please treat people as kindly as possible and look after those at the border. There is no reason these people should be left in that situation. At the end of the day, they are human beings. Some level of humanity should be shown and it is not being shown in all respects. I understand the pressure that Poland is dealing with but, at the same time, a young man has lost his life and many others are living in absolute squalor and deprivation. It is atrocious to be standing back and viewing the situation. We have not done enough to try to resolve the matter.

The second issue I raise is Ireland's marine strategy. Mayo, the county where I live, has a long coastline. We have huge untapped resources and potential to develop our marine resources along the coast of Mayo and the entire west coast. We very rarely discuss our marine strategy. We spend a lot of time discussing agriculture but very little time discussing the marine. They come under the same Department but agriculture certainly gets a lot more focus.

I appreciate time is tight before the recess. It would be helpful at some point in the new term to have a discussion on our marine strategy, with a focus on coastal communities and what we can do. I am particularly conscious of the fishing communities that have been hit by the Brexit process and are still struggling with that. I understand and appreciate there is a huge amount of financial support going to those communities. However, we need to have a long-term plan and strategy for maintaining those communities, keeping fishing communities alive and also exploring new opportunities, be that around aquaculture or marine tourism, given there is huge potential. In County Mayo, there are many projects ready to go around marine tourism. I think of Purteen Harbour in Achill and also Killala Bay, where there is lots of potential for marine tourism. It would be great to have an opportunity to meet the Minister in the Chamber to discuss how we can tap into those potential opportunities for Mayo and other coastal communities.

I raise the issue of GP shortages throughout the country. In recent months, I have been receiving calls from people in my home county of Longford to see if I could assist them in securing GP services. They told me they had contacted GPs around the county and had been told by most of them that they are not taking any more clients. I have cases of people who are actually travelling to Dublin to see a GP as they are unable to register for one in their own home county, or even in the surrounding counties. As we can imagine, this involves booking time off work and possibly getting public transport in certain circumstances.

As we know, during Covid, and with the move to remote working, many people have chosen to move to rural Ireland. However, the simple request of getting a GP is becoming impossible. While the shortage of GPs in the country has been an ongoing issue for a number of years, the strain of Covid has added to the burden for general practices.

We also do not want to see GPs getting burnt out and maybe lose GPs to other countries, which has happened in the past, not for more money but rather to have a better work-life balance.

For a long time now, GPs have been calling for urgent action to address the shortage of doctors in general practice as they deal with an overwhelming workload. The working conditions are very difficult at present and many of us now find that a number of GPs have their practices closed. One now has to wait longer to get to see a doctor, in some cases a day and in some circumstances up to a week. We have a growing population and figures show that we are not producing the required number of GPs we need. That has an impact on the services that we are able to provide and on locum cover for annual leave and sick leave also. Recent figures from the Irish College of General Practitioners estimate that of the approximately 4,700 GPs currently working in the State, 700 will retire over the next five years while only 350 GP training places are planned for 2026. The Irish Medical Organisation, IMO, states many parts of rural Ireland are being impacted by a shortage and the problem will only get worse as more doctors retire.

I also want to raise the issue of the Irish Athletic Boxing Association, IABA. We had them before the joint Oireachtas committee last week. We had the situation at the weekend where the Leinster Council organised its underage championships, then the IABA itself decided to organise the same championships and we had two Leinster Boxing Championships taking place in two different counties. My own opinion is that a massive change needs to be made within that organisation. I would like the Minister of State, Deputy Jack Chambers, to intervene. As I say, we have this situation where people box and are being told that they are not insured, yet they have paid their insurance, all because of disagreements at central council and provincial council level. The time has come for the Minister of State to intervene for the good and betterment of boxing in this country.

Ireland set up in recent years technological universities throughout the country and we are very proud of that. I was present of the Teachers Union of Ireland during the initial stages of that and I was struck by the commitment of staff in all of the former institutes of technology to get behind the drive to bring the technological universities about. There were difficulties, which we resolved as we moved through them. However, I am deeply, deeply concerned now to find that Munster Technological University is on a collision course for industrial action. There seems to be a breakdown of communication between the union representatives on the ground and the management of the university. This is something that we need to highlight. It never ceases to amaze me that it is Irish statutory institutions that seem to buck the system far more than the private sector when it comes to staff relations, the appointment of positions and the like. There are difficulties in Munster. The management of Munster Technological University must engage with the staff and must go through formal procedures when it comes to the appointment of senior positions within the technological university. I would ask that the Leader maybe drop the Minister, Deputy Harris, a note on that and advise him that there is an issue there that needs to be addressed.

I spoke about the issue of Covid-19 and the booster vaccines a few days ago. It is a matter of great concern to me that people in my own age group are not sure when they will be vaccinated. My consultant said to me that I need a booster because I am an at-risk patient with a coronary issue and diabetes. My GP says he knows nothing about this. We have this constant sort of mixed message coming out which is feeding into the anti-vaccination, anti-vax, lunatics who are out there. I do not want to see our hospital beds full of people who will not get vaccinated, let alone - if I find myself at risk and I need one - that there is not a bed available for me. We need to get the message out there straight as to exactly when each age group will be vaccinated and who is responsible for that booster. We need to get up and running fairly quickly.

I am delighted to see antigen testing coming in.

I also was delighted to see many of the institutions and organisations I visited in recent days demanding a certificate before I got into the building. We want to see more of that. If we can do something in that area, I would like to see it.

Finally, the Minister for Defence has once again put the Army front and centre to deliver booster vaccines. It would be great if he sorted out the 700 members with post-1994 contracts who will leave the Defence Forces in the next few months. As 700 people will be lost because we have not acted, again I ask the Leader to contact the Minister and ask him to make a statement as to how soon we can see that post-1994 issue resolved.

Today I want to raise a serious issue with the House, which may be something we could look to discuss further. This week is national clean air week. It was developed by Green-Schools, an NGO I worked with for 14 years. We have huge issues with air pollution. People seem to think it is just an urban issue, maybe in Delhi and places, but it is an issue in every single town and village in this country outside school gates. It is a huge issue and we have run campaigns on engine idling within Green-Schools Travel for many years. This week is clean air week. It started yesterday and continues until Friday. I want all Senators present to think about the fact that we leave our engines running when we are sitting there idling. Not only is this a waste of petrol, which we all want to save money on - nearly half a litre of petrol is burned when a car engine is left idling for ten minutes - but we have all become used to the habit of leaving our car engines running outside school gates, at GAA pitches and outside churches. There are so many different places when you hear cars. It has been a pet hate of mine for about 15 years but it has now come to the fore as we see we have 17,000 new cases of asthma each year in this country. Not only do we have air pollution issues not in Dublin but the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA. report also shows that we have levels of air pollution above what is acceptable to the EU right across the country.

There are a few things we need to ask for that are very clear. The Department for Transport has given millions for safer routes to school and for better infrastructure to give people better choices outside of the car. It also gave funding for safe routes to school. We need to see the money and the jobs that local authorities and the National Transport Authority, NTA, have been given used by prioritising this issue. It is not fair on our children that those who choose to walk or cycle have to go through vast amounts of air pollution to get to the school gates.

Something I noticed, as a Green-Schools Travel officer for many years, was that we have the highest incidence of air pollution at the school gates, that is, where our children to go school and which should be the cleanest and safest places. Every parent in the country, including myself in the past when my son was younger, seems to think that we deserve to get the child from the bed to the desk, if we could. It is a ridiculous notion. The school gate is only the width or length of one car yet every mother and father wants to try and get the car as close as possible to the school. Could we at least pull back and park and stride a small bit? Our weather is very mild and, sadly, getting milder thanks to climate change. It is mid-November and we are all going around in our T-shirts. I do not have a jacket with me today. So let us get with the programme. It is national clean air week and we, as car drivers, have to take responsibility. If we are leaving our engines idling or we are using the car for everything all the time, it is ridiculous and we have to take some personal responsibility. It will also save us money on petrol and reduce our carbon emissions but we need to make our schools and the places we bring our kids, safer. I ask people to take this seriously and seek the support of the House on that. There is a big job for the EPA and the NTA to do. The ETA need to up its game with air monitors. We cannot just stick it into social housing and blame all the problems on burning coal in the poor areas. That does not cut the mustard any more. We need them down in town centres and outside school gates.

I thank the Senator for raising that important issue. When we see the level of pollution in Delhi and other cities, it brings to mind the challenges around climate change.

We seem to be finally on a path to greater regulation and legislation that would rein in the technology companies and the technology giants. The Digital Services Act, the online safety Bill on which Senator Carrigy and I have produced the pre-legislative report and the media committee are all going in the right direction. Companies such as Facebook, however, have a very well-resourced logging machine

I know from the latest figures for 2017 in regard to the European institutions that Facebook has spent approximately €2.5 million lobbying the EU institutions around regulation and legislation. Very often - I have witnessed this - Facebook will publicly state it is in favour of something while behind closed doors it will kick-back against it. We saw this regarding its call for a delay with the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill 2020. I am raising this issue because we were informed in the Business Post on Sunday that tech companies were granted confidentiality before meeting with the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and officials of the Department. We all know that Government needs to get tough on social media companies. It needs to stand up for the interests of citizens, the protection of data, the protection of people's well-being online and for our democracy as well. That Facebook was granted confidentiality by a Minister of State prior to a discussion on legislation is incredible. It is unpalatable. I am surprised that an Irish Government Minister would agree to a request like that. I intend to raise this issue in private session at tomorrow's meeting of the Joint Committee on Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht. I call on the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, to come before this House regarding this issue. As I have already stated, we know that when Facebook states something in public it is lobbying for the complete opposite in private. I call on the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, to come before this House to explain why confidentiality was granted for those meetings.

Before coming into the Chamber, I received a telephone call from a nightclub operator. To say that he is gutted about the announcement with regard to the coming into effect of the early closing time from this Friday is an understatement. I do not propose to dwell on the rights and wrongs of these changes. It is absolutely vital that the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, is reinstated. It is ironic that the second in a series of cuts to that payment comes into force today. The €350 payment is now down to €250, which is a €100 decrease on what it was at the start of September. There are people's livelihoods and incomes at stake. Many of these are young people.

The other issue I want to raise today is the shambolic waiting time for PPS numbers and the wild west situation that is playing out at this point in time with regard to applying for a birth certificate for a baby. We are all aware of the cyberattack on the HSE, which had an enormous impact on its operations, but there is a very serious question now as to what the HSE is doing to address the backlog with regard to the registration of babies. I know of babies born in July whose PPS numbers were only issued in recent weeks. This means parents had no access to a GP visit card or child benefit during their first three months of their babies' lives. That is not all. There are also appalling delays with regard to accessing a birth certificate. The system is a little different to what it was when I had my child, who is only two years old, in that getting a birth certificate is now separate to registering the birth of a child. Currently, in Dublin a family wishing to get a birth certificate is facing a wait of more than 11 weeks. Last week an official of the births, deaths and marriages office in Dublin told a family that there are 19,000 unread emails in that office relating to birth certificate applications. That is mind blowing.

There is something seriously wrong there, but it gets worse. While it is recommended that people apply online, what they do not know is that if they include €22 in cash in the envelope with the application they will get the birth certificate within a few days. I know of a family who needed a birth certificate in order to have their child baptised. They were given a telephone number in Kilkenny to contact about it and they received the birth certificate within a few days. Most families, because they are desperate to get a birth certificate in order to get a passport or to apply for other services for the child, are turning to what appear to be private or semi-private services. I am aware of two such companies, civilcertificates.ie and birthsdeathsmarriages.ie. In the case of birthsdeathsmarriages.ie, I know of one family who paid the company €50 but it appears to have gone belly-up and there is no word on the birth certificate.

With the permission of one family, I paid the other company for a birth certificate last week on the same day as the mother applied for her baby's birth certificate through the HSE's births, deaths and marriages service. I paid €46 and she paid €21.50. I got the birth certificate within six days and the mother is still waiting. She will be waiting for many more weeks.

There are many issues with this, including waiting times and privacy. I could buy a birth certificate for another person's baby and get more information back in the certificate than I needed to put into the original application. I would like answers from the HSE and the Department of Social Protection regarding PPS numbers and from the Department of Health regarding the processing of birth certificates.

I allowed the Senator a little latitude because she was raising an important topic.

The Leader may have read last week a statement issued by Professor John Ryan, a consultant in the hepatology department of Beaumont Hospital, in which he stated that the incidence of people presenting with liver disease at the hospital had increased by 30% since the first lockdown. He attributed this, and was clearly right, to the increased consumption of alcohol in the home during the lockdowns.

Home drinking is entirely different than drinking in pubs or restaurants or at parties where it enhances the company, the conversation and the fun. Drinking at home is all about drink and there is no control, supervision or moderation. We are approaching the Christmas period and the advertising tsunami for drinks is starting. There is a great deal of it in the media and, in particular, on television. It is a very trying time for people with an alcohol addiction, be it an active addiction or in recovery. I speak with some experience.

A couple of years ago, I made a suggestion in the House that was not taken up, but I will repeat it now. Diageo and all the other companies in the drinks sector constantly tell us to drink responsibly. They advertise that message and spend money on it, which is good, but I have a practical suggestion for them. When people are hosting guests at Christmas or any other time and they are pouring out alcohol, most of them have no clue as to what a unit of alcohol is. Some do not drink themselves and just pour free hand. It leads to all sorts of problems. It would not be a great expense to the drinks people to provide with each bottle of spirits sold some form of unit measure so that the housewife or person at home who was the host of the party could use it without feeling any sense of shame. It is a responsible thing to do. I remember how, years ago, a producer of Scotch used to have a twist-off cap that happened to be a measure. It was a double, so it was a large measure, but someone still had something to go by. It would not cost much for that to be replicated or for a small plastic unit measure to be stuck onto each bottle. Through our conversation in this forum, which I hope will be picked up, I appeal to the drinks people to take this suggestion on board. It would make a major contribution to people's health for the remainder of Covid at least.

I thank Senator O'Sullivan for that important and valid suggestion.

I wish to raise two issues. I welcome the report that was launched today by the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage regarding a directly elected mayor for Limerick. I pay tribute to the committee for its work on the report and to the witnesses who presented to the committee. Pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill lasted for quite a while. I also pay tribute to the councillors who made an input and to the implementation committee that was set up in Limerick two years ago by the then Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, and is now working with the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke. This is an important day for Limerick and the mid-west.

I will make two or three points. First, the change will not work unless there is a significant budget behind it. Second, there has to be a speaker of the house and perhaps an assistant speaker to back up the directly elected mayor.

The mayor must also be given significant powers. Limerick will be the first. It is good that other cities and counties will also have the opportunity of having a plebiscite down the road. I welcome that.

There are 95 people on trolleys and chairs in University Hospital Limerick, UHL, and just over 400 people on trolleys in hospitals throughout the country. This means that one quarter of those on trolleys are in UHL. I pay tribute to the staff at the hospital who are working in extreme circumstances. It is frightening that the highest number of people ever are waiting on trolleys at UHL today. I previously called for a debate with the Minister on hospital numbers. We need him to come to the Seanad. I know that a lot is going on with Covid and everything else, but people's healthcare is imperative. The Minister should come to the House for discussion on waiting lists.

I also wish to raise an issue on healthcare. I was thinking earlier how we are always asking for the Minister for Health. As I was leaving the Chamber earlier, he was in the anteroom and I thought about how when we want him, we cannot get him. However, he may have been there on other business.

No one who listened to "Drivetime" on RTÉ radio yesterday evening could have failed to have been moved by the harrowing stories of the nurses and doctors, but particularly those of the nurses who spoke. I was shattered to hear their experiences. They spoke of excessive demands, workloads, staff shortages. They spoke of the lack of adequate staff and meaningful engagement. They talked about safety around workers and patients being compromised by relentless work practices. I checked and the HSE has confirmed that 107 vacant nurse and midwife posts are in the Mayo University Hospital in Castlebar. In a later press release Saolta said it hopes to recruit 55 nurses next year. That is 55 out of 107 vacancies. What are the nurses and doctors, the front-line staff, saying? They are saying that they are frustrated and exhausted. There was a nurse crying on the telephone last night saying she does not know where to go. They are simply broken by the system. So many people have either left or opted out. The Mayo region deserves better. The people of Mayo and of this country deserve better.

I know that there is a crisis, that there is Covid and that there are many other pressing needs, but the situation to which I refer is clearly not acceptable. There is so much talk of how the nurses and doctors are our heroes - we have heard that too often - but they just want action, support and to do their jobs. They are in a work environment. They are not machines; they humans who are exposed to Covid and exhaustion. Their families are concerned about them. I am asking for some sort of debate. I could come in here every day, to focus on scoliosis tomorrow and Limerick hospital the next day and then Mayo, but we are in crisis. Successive Governments have squandered money in relation to resourcing these people to do their work. I want to highlight it on behalf of the people of Mayo and the doctors and nursing staff of Mayo University Hospital.

Normally, I stay to the end of the Order of Business because it is polite to listen to the Leader's response. In the light of the figures we have seen, however, I will return to my office and pay attention when I watch her response on the monitor. I mean no offence to the Leader. I opened the window here a minute ago when I heard Senator Garvey talk about clean air week. We need more ventilation. We need get back to the basics and focus on them. We know the figures are going up and doing so in the wrong way but we need an urgent debate on how to manage our situation as we head towards Christmas. Every effort must be all Senators who wants to contribute to a debate on having a successful, safe and prosperous Christmastime during which we can socialise safely.

I cannot imagine how difficult it is for pubs and people in the late-night hospitality and restaurant industries. They were closed for 585 days. They will have been open for 27 days and will be closing again, at least after midnight, from this Thursday evening. It is important that the Government maintains the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, and the pandemic unemployment payment for people working in these sectors. This is their livelihood, as Senator Sherlock said earlier, and it is important that we take that on board.

We also need to look at areas that have not been addressed, such as better ventilation. I do not think I will offend the Leader by saying that she is probably blue in the face talking about antigen testing and its role. It is not the be-all and end-all. My understanding is that PCR tests are incredibly expensive to process - I think the cost is over €100 - while antigen tests are much cheaper. They could mean that some people who do not believe they have Covid-19 and are asymptomatic will decide to have a test before going out and will then stay at home in order to stop the spread.

We all need to do our best. We need to keep to the basics, such as washing our hands, wearing masks and not socialising unnecessarily or unsafely. Equally, we need to allow those in hospitality to function properly. I cannot imagine how difficult it is for them, having restarted the industry, to have this thrown at them in what is probably the busiest six weeks of their year. We need to have a debate, whether it is with the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, or the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin. We need the Ministers to come to this Chamber to discuss how we keep these businesses alive and keep ourselves alive in the weeks and months ahead.

I raise awareness about a partnership between Women’s Aid and the Hair and Beauty Industry Confederation Ireland, HABIC. The two organisations have come together to bring about an awareness campaign on domestic violence. The campaign will assist hair salons in being able to identify the ten common signs of abuse. The salons are being supplied with resource packs. It may well be that the only time a woman is out of the home and away domestic abuse is when she is getting her hair done. This is an opportunity to receive or share information. We have probably all at some point in our lives confided in our hairdressers. I have on occasion sat in the hairdresser's and cried. We share good news and the difficult days with a hairdresser. There is something in this fantastic initiative by Women's Aid.

Earlier, I attended a meeting of the Joint Committee on Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, which heard from the Amal Women's Organisation, which supports Muslim women by, for instance, accompanying them to court or through maternity or other services where there may be a lack of cultural and religious awareness of their particular needs and sensitivities arising out of their faith. Having accompaniment in the way this organisation provides is important. It also goes into court with women.

Amal is starting what is called the yellow sticker initiative to get retailers on high streets to place a yellow sticker in their window. The yellow sticker is a signal to a person who is experiencing hate crime or racist or religious abuse on the street, as all too often happens, that the shop is a place of refuge. The person will be given a chair and a drink of water and staff will call the Garda and the person’s family. One of the women shared her experiences of this at today's meeting. The Amal Women's Organisation is beginning to roll out this initiative, which it had started with the Garda prior to Covid-19. This is a partnership of retailers who are assisting people in a moment of vulnerability. We give out much of the time but this is good news and a supportive initiative in the community.

I appreciate the need for public health measures but as other Senators outlined, late-night sectors are to close again, having been closed for 595 days and reopening for 27 days. This is extraordinarily difficult for staff, as Senator Sherlock outlined, and business owners, as Senator Horkan outlined. It is not just about the closure but ongoing difficulties for the staff in this sector. Businesses are supposed to retain qualified, experienced staff but they cannot offer them any certainty about working conditions.

Some excellent staff throughout the country have been lost to the sector since Covid, especially in my own city of Galway, the city of festivals. I have contacted the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and the Minister for Finance for essential support, such as the Covid restrictions support scheme, the employment wage subsidy scheme and the pandemic unemployment payment to be immediately reintroduced in full. The waiving of commercial rates needs to continue.

Thousands of jobs throughout the country are at stake. The sector will need longer-term supports to recover. An overall plan is needed to ensure the sector and thousands of SMEs are given the opportunity to survive. We also need to examine how these businesses can operate safely in Covid circumstances and what can be done to make these premises secure. There have been many examples of this over the past number of weeks.

I would be grateful if the Leader could invite the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, to the House at the earliest opportunity to discuss the immediate reintroduction of financial supports for the impacted businesses. If we do not support the night-time economy businesses when they are going through this very difficult time after 27 days, they will not be there.

I ask for some clarity for childcare providers. When there was a Covid outbreak in their facilities a number of months ago, before September, they would have a contact within the HSE to call to do contact tracing and get advice on what to do with the management of their facility. Childcare providers are being treated like schools in that there is no more contact tracing. I disagree with that, but that is the decision which has been made. The problem childcare providers now have is they are not getting any advice from the HSE on how to act on an outbreak of Covid.

The decision is then left to the management. There are two problems with this. In terms of telling parents, they are more reassured knowing the decision to close down a facility was made by the HSE rather the manager of a facility. The other important point is that all these childcare providers provide a service partially paid by the State through the early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme. That service is paid for by the State through taxpayers' money. Pobal routinely, and randomly, visits service providers to make sure they provide such a service. If the service is not provided, such as when there is a Covid outbreak and the manager makes a decision to close down that facility, the State does not pay for a service not provided. However, it is totally different if the service is closed down on the recommendation of the HSE.

If it has not happened already, a situation will certainly happen in the future whereby Pobal will visit providers, find they were closed for a period of time and ask them to reimburse the State for the ECCE scheme which was not provided for those days. The providers need the protection of the HSE guidance to close down their facility. It is very important for them. They are doing an immense service in teaching and parenting kids. It is not their role to be a nurse or a doctor and make these decisions. They need that support from the HSE. I call on the Leader to help in that process for them.

The Central Bank motor insurance report clearly shows that while most of us were pulling together during the Covid-19 pandemic, the insurance industry was pulling a fast one by pocketing the vast savings they made. In 2020, traffic fell by 37%, the number of claims fell by 26% and the cost of claims by 20% and yet insurance premiums have only fallen by 7%. I am sure not a single Member of this House has not had personal experience of trying to renew his or her insurance or of being contacted by members of public or small business owners about the cost of insurance in this country. The figures from the Personal Injuries Assessment Board show awards have fallen by 40% since April. Perhaps we could write to the Minister to ask how he will ensure the savings will be passed on through insurance, especially when the cost of living is going through the roof.

It will be galling for anybody waking up this morning or anyone who is trying to run a small business to read the Central Bank's insurance report and know the insurance industry made €163 million in profits last year, while many people's insurance premiums have stayed the same or only fallen by a tiny amount. I would like the Minister responsible to outline how we are going to ensure those reductions are passed on, strengthen the Personal Injuries Assessment Board, PIAB, and ban the loyalty penalty for people who chose to stay with the insurance company.

I rise to request a debate on health, to cover a myriad of pieces, especially the HSE winter plan and a debate on the managing of our healthcare system, to include bed capacity, community care and mental health. The Minister for Health has been speaking about the significant challenges, notwithstanding the changes announced today. An example is the winter flu vaccine and the role of our community pharmacies and our pharmacies. Yesterday I went into my local pharmacy, O'Connor's, on the Curraheen Road. I rang, got an appointment and was in within 20 minutes. It was a simple job. I was in and out and gone. The flu vaccine is one of our most effective tools and weapons we can use. I encourage Members to take up that campaign.

I raise also the issue Senator Craughwell referred to this afternoon, namely, the Munster Technological University, MTU, in Cork. As members will know a technological university has been created from the institutes of technology in Cork and Tralee. The MTU is a huge success thus far, thanks to the staff and the work that has been done both in Cork and Tralee. I thank all members of staff and pay tribute in particular to those who led the change in creating the MTU. However, there is a need to have the issues mentioned by Senator Craughwell addressed. Notwithstanding those little teething issues which will always occur, there needs to be a greater consultation between management, staff and unions in the new MTU and I encourage a consistency of approach. I also encourage better and greater communication. The MTU is a success and will be a success. It behoves all of us to ensure the campuses in both County Kerry and County Cork are successful. We were present at the launch and flag-raising last week but there are issues that need to be addressed. I am confident they will be, provided there is better communication and engagement.

I raise the booster vaccine programme and how it is being rolled out. We have seen a significant announcement this morning by the Minister for Health regarding how he hopes to have that effected, especially for vulnerable people aged, I think, between 50 and 59 years. There is a huge issue with the cohort of people, particularly those aged over 70 years, who went to the GP for their first two vaccinations. Now, as GP practices are in some cases so busy, that cohort has been kicked backed to the HSE. That is creating a real dilemma for that section of our society who are very vulnerable and who traditionally went to their GP for this vaccine. I know of one GP in particular where 750 cases have been referred back to the HSE. Those people are now stuck in limbo and do not know when they will be called. These are all individuals aged over 70 years. We need to get clarity on how and when we are going to get the vaccination programme rolled out, especially for the people in the GP sector who have now gone back to the HSE.

As a parent of four kids in primary school, there is a huge issue about when the vaccine will come to children aged between five and 12 years. We have huge populations going to school every day. There is great demand. Even at the school gate this morning, I was twice asked when that cohort will be looked at and when five to 12-year-olds would be brought into the programme. My little girl, Ellen, is turning 12 years of age on Thursday and she is getting her vaccine at 2 p.m. that day. One can pre-book to get it. However, we need clarity for the other major part of society who need and want to be part of that vaccination programme. The timelines and how it will happen need to be addressed. That is something we could have a debate with the Minister on today to ensure children aged under 12 years get the opportunity to get the vaccine they require.

There was a celebration in Mountbellew-Moylough on Sunday when the club won the county final in Galway for the first time in 35 years. Many Members might know Paul Connaughton Snr. and Paul Connaughton Jnr. Many people from Mountbellew have been Members of this House. It was a wonderful celebration. There were lots of black and amber flags flying and bonfires.

I was also in the Mountbellew mart yesterday listening to farmers. It is important we hear farmers' voices and stand side by side with them. Every Senator has a connection to the land, be it through previous generations of our families or our friends. We all have a connection to the land. It is important farmers understand we stand with them and are there to support them, as world class producers. They are the best at what they do in the areas of grassland management and sustainable beef production. They are leading the way and we need to support them in how they tackle climate change. "Trust" and "confidence" are words we say very easily but I can say, standing tall, I have immense trust and confidence in our farmers in leading this charge.

The Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, proposals have brought much debate and the Government is listening. We need to introduce more choice in our eco-schemes. I spoke to the office of the Minister of State, Deputy Heydon, on this issue and it will seek to increase the number of eco-schemes being offered. We must invest in research and innovation to support our farmers in order that they have the best genetic breeds and grassland management techniques and the technology to support them to do what they do in the best way they can. We must help them reach the targets for emission reductions.

Costs are rising, including for feed and fertiliser, all as a direct result of the cost of gas. We need to ensure the programmes farmers are applying for are simplified and that we are conscious of rising costs. Farmers are resilient. They have adapted so much. We saw the operation of online marts and so on during the past year and a half. We must ensure that farmers see and know there is a great future in farming. We are fighting for markets and will get them. There is a future for them.

I, too, raise the issue of the booster vaccine. Vulnerable people under the age of 50 were not prioritised quickly enough for the vaccine. I welcome that this is being addressed now. I call on the Leader to arrange for the Minister for Health to come to the House next week or the week after that to provide an update on the operational arrangements for the booster vaccine. There is much concern about it, especially when people hear it reported in the media that the Minister for Defence has offered the support of the Defence Forces. That is very welcome but it puts the fear of God into people to think the situation is so bad that we require the support of the Defence Forces to speed up vaccination. People deserve clarity, especially the 93% of the population who got their vaccine and those who would willingly and readily take a booster vaccine tomorrow morning.

The Cabinet announcement today, and the notion that all hospitality will close at 12 midnight, means nightclubs are being put out of business. It would be far more appropriate to say we want nightclubs to close and then to close them, as opposed to saying everything closes at 12 midnight. I do not know what the purpose of this measure is or why it was choreographed in that way. It would be far more upfront and honest if nightclubs and late-night bars were told they will have to close. We are trying get buy-in and bring people and industry with us. Nightclubs are one of the industries that has suffered most during the past 18 months. The messaging is important and critical but the type of messaging we had today is not fair, right or respectful. I would prefer to see it changed.

We have had massive buy-in from the industry, all sectors and stakeholders, members of the public and everybody else until now. I certainly do not want to see that lost. Like everybody else here, I am concerned that the numbers spiralled in the wrong direction over the weekend. This has to be addressed, but let us, in the manner in which we do that, be respectful of the sectors that have suffered most.

A number of colleagues have asked, either directly or indirectly, for a debate on Covid-19 and our management of same. A number of Ministers could potentially come to the House to answer questions on financial supports and restrictions, whether they be for our good health or otherwise but a separate debate is also needed on the ill-effects of Covid on the delivery of what we would consider normal health services in the country. I would rather not conflate the two issues because they are very different. It is easy for us to say that there are 95 people on hospital trolleys in Limerick because of Covid but I do not think that is necessarily true, although it is certainly a contributory factor. Senator Carrigy talked about the lack of GPs and I know that they are under incredible pressure. However, we have had dwindling numbers of GPs for a lot longer than we have had Covid. I will try to organise two separate debates, notwithstanding the time constraints for all Ministers between now and Christmas.

Senator Dolan spoke about farmers. We have all been meeting farmers over recent weeks, not least because of the announcements from the European Union and the Government's reactions to same. The climate action plan seems to be weighing very heavily on that particular sector and in that context, I really welcome what Senator Dolan said. Farmers are the custodians of our land. If anybody cares about our soil, the management of our land, our heritage and the food we produce, it is farmers. They get up in the middle of the night, when the rest of us are in bed, to make sure they look after their land and their animals. I welcome what Senator Dolan said in that regard.

Obviously, congratulations are due to Mountbellew on their victory at the weekend. It is a lovely time of the year because lots of communities get great joy but there is also the downside that lots of communities do not get any joy and come home having lost at the weekend. Fingallians won the Dublin intermediate hurling championship at the weekend which was great but my own home town lost in the semi-final the previous weekend. We have to take the good with the bad.

Senator Lombard asked for the booster campaign to be a little more clear. First, we are late to the party, having waited for NIAC in the last couple of months, in terms of talking about a booster campaign and I do not know why. It is as if we are now surprised by the numbers but NPHET gave us four modelling scenarios at the end of August. We all railed against them and said that we did not want to be between optimistic and pessimistic but we find ourselves right down now with the pessimistic numbers. The numbers certainly cannot be seen as a surprise but I really wish that NIAC had shown a little more urgency in the last couple of weeks. What we need to do now is roll out the booster campaign. The Tánaiste is many miles away today but he suggested this morning that we should stop calling it a booster campaign and should refer to a three vaccine dose-----

That is exactly what it is but I fear that we may be back here in a couple of months talking about four vaccine doses. We need to genuinely learn how to live with Covid. We need to really recognise the seasonality around it. We absolutely need to support businesses and workers to make sure they do not feel the ill-effects of Covid. We have tried to cushion them over the last 18 months and it is important that we keep doing so.

Senator Boylan spoke about the motor insurance industry report. It is really disappointing to learn today about profits of €163 million, particularly when most of our insurance premia have either gone up or have stayed the same simply because we were able to move to another provider. The Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Fleming, has acknowledged that there is a considerable amount of work to be done to ensure that the insurance industry respects us as customers and recognises that our children will be the customers of the future. Insurers need to cop themselves on and start valuing their customers. Otherwise, people will use their feet and take their business elsewhere.

Senator Ahearn described what I think is an intolerable situation. I seem to be in a very critical mood today but I do not understand the logic of what we have seen with schools in the last number of months. We have spent the last year telling parents and children that schools are the safest place to be in the country. We have been telling people that Covid did not get inside the door of schools and if children got Covid, they caught it in the playground or in their best friend's granny's house or in some place other than school. That is not to say that school staff have not done everything possible to make sure that both teachers and pupils are safe. For me, it was illogical to stop contact tracing for children in schools. Telling children to carry on going to school if they had no symptoms absolutely beggars belief. We scratch our heads and wonder why this time next week or the week after we will be looking at 7,000 cases per day or, at the most pessimistic, 10,000 per day. We stopped contact tracing for children who are not vaccinated which leaves me more than scratching my head.

I welcome the news that they will look again at the way we deal with Covid in schools and crèches . I will relay that to Senator Ahearn when I see him later.

Senator Crowe, because of his personal engagement with the industry in Galway, talked about how we need to reintroduce the rates waiver and the CRSS supports for businesses. Members in this House and in the Lower House have today called for the reinstatement of the PUP. I remind Members that the EWSS is there, and it has not been reduced. It will continue to be there for many months. It will probably be there for longer than we had originally anticipated, right up until March or April of next year. It will encourage employers to put and keep staff on their books and to use the EWSS to ensure that they support their employees with their incomes.

Senator Seery Kearney talked about something that I read with much joy, even though it was tinged with sadness in another way, about the Women's Aid campaign with the hair and beauty industry. I think she is correct, and it may be as true for the fellas as it is for the girls. When you get your hair cut the barber listens to you moaning and groaning and when you get your hair done - perhaps it is a little bit longer for girls - you get a whole session of therapy because they certainly know how to listen to our woes and to advise us. They are wonderful people and they do more than just make us look good. This is a real example of women looking out for women. It is an awful pity that we have to do this. It is a devastation on us as a society and that is not just true of Ireland. The increase in reported cases of domestic violence in the past 18 months is a real blight and slight on us as communities, but the fact that we are talking about it far more openly these days is good. I commend the campaign and also the yellow sticker campaign. It is a lovely and very welcome initiative. I thank the Senator for bringing it up here today.

Senator Buttimer talked about the midnight closure and making sure the EWSS will not end. He is correct – it is not just me, I think I can speak for nearly all of us – that we are beyond frustrated at the lack of use of antigen testing in this country. I do not understand it. I somewhat understand how that was the case some months ago when medical advisers were afraid that we did not know how to do an antigen test, but that boat has long since sailed. We should be getting subsidised antigen tests. The UK was well ahead of us on this initiative. Antigen tests should be sent to people's homes on a weekly basis to make sure that we know when we are infectious and that we curb our activities on that basis and that nobody is running around with a negative test thinking "Woohoo, they're deadly". It is to make sure that people with positive tests change and curb their behaviour.

Senator Boyhan called for a debate on healthcare. We will organise that. Senator Maria Byrne talked about this morning's report from the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage on the directly elected mayor. I am excited about this and not just because I hope that Limerick is going to get a well resourced and powerful person to look after the city, but it will give confidence to people in Dublin, Cork, Galway and Kilkenny to make sure that they do the same. We need to see autonomy within those cities and people being able to make revenue-raising and revenue-spending decisions locally for the people they represent and to whom they will be directly responsible, as opposed to the management system that we have now.

Senator O'Sullivan spoke about home drinking. He had a wonderful suggestion. I do not know who I will write to, but I will find out who the appropriate person is, such as the likes of Musgraves or the liquor producers. It was a very good suggestion to make sure that we have a unit measure. We have a tiny little egg cup in our house, but it probably is not anything close to what it should be. That was a very good suggestion and I thank the Senator for raising it. I will bring it up with somebody.

Senator Sherlock talked about the PUP. I remind Members that the EWSS is there. It is something the Taoiseach will relay to everybody this evening in his state of the nation address at 6.30 p.m.

Senator Warfield talked about the regulation of the tech giants. That is welcome. I was not aware of the issue he raised. I had to get it sent to me. I will not beat about the bush with him; it does surprise me. It is welcome that the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Tourism, Culture, Arts, Sport and Media is serious in its intent to make sure that those people who have such a massive influence not just on daily life but on how we feel, think, operate and behave are going to be regulated because it is long overdue. Margrethe Vestager is taking things by the scruff of the neck and trying to do something on a European basis. She is a woman of many talents and a personality of steel. She is not afraid to tackle the big issues. We have felt that before in Ireland.

It is a pity that we would try to have private conversations. I will follow up on that and come back to the Senator. It is welcome, from the committee's perspective, that the engagement is happening to make sure that we tackle this issue.

Senator Garvey talked about the fact that it is national clean air week. The Cathaoirleach briefly mentioned India. I am not sure when I read it that I really fully understood the full extent of it, that children were being sent home for a week in Delhi because the air is of such poor quality that it would harm them and they cannot be let outside. I do not think we have ever had that or anything like that in Ireland. We have an opportunity to make sure that we never do. I thank Senator Garvey for raising something that the Green Party has ensured is in our programme for Government. We will respond accordingly. Some of the mammies here would probably have a bit of a laugh, in that when their children were small, they might have wanted to drive them up to the door and throw them through the window so that they did not have to walk. I do not know whether that was a safety issue or just warped thinking on our part.

Senator Carrigy talked about GP shortages. A simple response to this, for both in rural general practices and in recruiting doctors for the hospitals, is to have a hell of a lot more than 350 recruits every single year. If we only put 350 people into the training, then only 350 people can come out. We know that they do not all stay. Many finish their training and then leave. We need to increase the numbers. The Minister, Deputy Harris, can look at that. I will refer that matter to him and come back to the Senator.

Senator Chambers opened by mentioning what we have witnessed, which is the disgraceful treatment of human beings by the Polish and Belarusian Governments, as people try to escape into Poland from Belarus. The Senator is right to make the appeal to both ends. The sanctions need to be made against Lukashenko. He obviously does not give two hoots about the people who he constantly says that he cherishes and about whom he says it is a pleasure and privilege for him to be their leader. His actions certainly do not match his stated intentions. The real plea has to be to the people on the Polish side of the border to say that these are human beings and to push them back and potentially damage them, as they have in the last week, is a shame and a slight on humanity. Nobody should have to live in squalor or deprivation, especially those people who are fleeing in fear of their own lives. It is up to the European Union to make sure that it takes appropriate sanctions and takes them fast.

Will the Leader ask the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, to come to the House to address the matter of the Irish Athletic Boxing Association, IABA?

I beg the Senator's pardon. I will send a note to the Minister of State this afternoon. I am not sure if it is his role to interfere in the two bodies but he can certainly have a quiet word to find out if there is anything that the State can do to try to make uniformity break out again.

Order of Business agreed to.