Wednesday, 21 October 2020

Ceisteanna (7)

Richard Boyd Barrett


7. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the EU Council meeting of 16 October 2020. [31339/20]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (7 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Taoiseach)

I attended a meeting of the European Council in Brussels on 15 and 16 October. The agenda included Brexit, Covid-19, climate action, EU relations with Africa, and a number of external relations issues.

On Brexit, the European Union chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, shared his assessment of the state of play in the negotiations. While recalling our determination to have as close as possible a partnership with the United Kingdom, the European Council noted that further progress was needed on a number of key issues, in particular the level playing field, governance and fisheries, if agreement is to be achieved. I was joined by a number of other leaders in insisting on the importance of a fair and balanced outcome on fisheries for our fishing enterprises and our coastal communities. There was also agreement on the need for full and timely implementation of the withdrawal agreement, including the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland. On Covid-19, we agreed that the current epidemiological situation gives rise to very serious concerns. In welcoming progress on better co-ordination of travel within the European Union, we called for stronger co-ordination in areas including quarantine, cross-border contact tracing, testing strategies and the mutual recognition of tests. We also welcomed ongoing work on the development and distribution of vaccines.

We held a positive exchange on climate action and will return to this issue at our meeting in December. I expressed the Government's support for the Commission's proposal for increased ambition at European Union level, including setting a target of at least a 55% reduction in carbon by 2030.

On Friday we held a strategic discussion on Africa in preparation for the European Union-African Union summit planned for 2021. We touched on the situation in Belarus and the shooting down of flight MH17, and separately on the European Union's relationship with our southern neighbourhood. We discussed Turkey and condemned recent provocative maritime activity by Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean. We will return to this issue at future meetings. In addition to attending the meeting of the European Council, I also had a bilateral meeting with President Emmanuel Macron of France. This focused in particular on Brexit, including our shared determination to secure a fair and balanced outcome on fish and Covid-19 in France and Ireland.

I want to refer to our earlier discussion. As the Taoiseach said, he discussed the European wide response to Covid-19, specifically cross-border contact tracing. That brings us to the topical discussion of the state of our contact tracing system. I mentioned contact tracing. Reference to private German laboratories is a bit of a deflection, to be honest.

No, the Deputy extolled the virtues of a national health service in Germany. It did not actually apply to testing.

I accept that there is a large private pharmaceutical industry and it utilises its laboratories. There is also a state-of-the-art public health apparatus, something we do not have. We have run down our public health apparatus.

A particular strength of the German system is the strength of its local public health apparatus and tracing regime. That is what is needed. Similar success has been achieved in New Zealand, Australia and so on because of the strength of local public health. We need people with local knowledge, resources and respect, which our public health specialists do not have because they are not held in the same status as other medical specialists, and the resourcing to back that up.

We do not need people on miserable contracts. I have the contract in front of me. It is a zero-hour contract, without a shadow of a doubt. It is littered with statements to the effect that the company can get rid of personnel, does not have to pay them in this instance and so on. It scrambled because I embarrassed it last week. I was tipped off by somebody who is on one of these contracts who is absolutely disgusted. Somebody with a postgraduate degree is being treated like this.

It is no wonder we cannot get contact tracers if these are the contracts they are being handed. The suggestion from Deputy Alan Kelly that we should siphon off the system from the HSE is even worse. It is madness. We need people who are directly employed by the HSE on proper contracts in order to build up strong public health teams at a local level, which is what exists in Germany. Was there any detailed discussion about that kind of thing? That is what we need if we are going to get ahead of this virus.

On an elimination strategy or suppression, Dr. David Nabarro was clear, as was Dr. Tony Holohan at the briefing. We have to have that public health apparatus to have a chance of not rolling in and out of restrictions after restrictions time after time. That is the point. Did the Taoiseach learn anything from our European colleagues in that regard?

There are 46 seconds.

I learned a lot. The Dutch support our plan. Other Parliaments-----

I want to focus very briefly on the European Council, which was the question asked. The Taoiseach touched on three outstanding issues in respect of Brexit, namely, oversight, fisheries and a level playing field. I do not have time to go into them in detail.

We went through them in detail earlier today in discussions at the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs with the House of Lords' committee. Even those who were very strongly anti-Brexit were concerned about the requirements on the European Union side in regard to oversight. It was European Union oversight that was at issue. They asked us if we could address that issue and if there was an independent body that might well address that issue. The fisheries issue is obviously a fundamental issue, but has now become totemic as a matter of sovereignty as supposed to a matter of fish.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.
Sitting suspended at 2.26 p.m. and resumed at 3.26 p.m.