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Cabinet Committees

Dáil Éireann Debate, Tuesday - 30 November 2021

Tuesday, 30 November 2021

Ceisteanna (2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11)

Mary Lou McDonald


2. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on Education will next meet. [55668/21]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Alan Kelly


3. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on Education will next meet. [56127/21]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Richard Boyd Barrett


4. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on Education will next meet. [57325/21]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Paul Murphy


5. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on Education will next meet. [57328/21]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Cathal Crowe


6. Deputy Cathal Crowe asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on Education last met; and when it is next due to meet. [57356/21]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Pádraig O'Sullivan


7. Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on Education last met; and when it is next due to meet. [57357/21]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Cian O'Callaghan


8. Deputy Cian O'Callaghan asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on Education will next meet. [58660/21]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Brendan Smith


9. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on Education will meet next. [58662/21]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Mick Barry


10. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on Education will next meet. [58665/21]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Gary Gannon


11. Deputy Gary Gannon asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on Education last met; and when it is next due to meet. [59098/21]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (27 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 2 to 11, inclusive, together. The Cabinet committee on education oversees implementation of the programme for Government commitments in the area of education including the management of Covid-19 in schools. This Cabinet committee last met on 13 May. I have regular engagements with Ministers at Cabinet and individually to discuss priority issues relating to their Departments. In addition, a number of meetings have been held between my officials and officials from relevant Government Departments since the establishment of the Cabinet committee in July 2020 and there have been bilateral meetings between myself and the Minister for Education and also with the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science.

There are eight speakers and I call Deputy Mac Lochlainn now, who has one minute.

Contact tracing in schools effectively ceased at the end of September. Since then the level of infection has more than trebled among primary school children although in the absence of properly collected data by the health system, the incidence rate may be higher. No satisfactory explanation has been provided by the Government as to how schools went from being safe to unsafe virtually overnight. We support the Government in its intention to keep the schools open but what we cannot understand is why the Minister for Health has not reinstated fully resourced schools-specific contact tracing. Why is that left to principals and parents? Surely it is the HSE that must lead testing and tracing in our schools, including risk assessments and referrals for PCR testing where a child is a close contact. Antigen testing should supplement not replace PCR testing. It is not the job of educators to carry public health duties and we all know how stretched the school system is. The capacity issues for PCR testing also need to be addressed in this context together with outstanding issues in regard to supply and distribution of antigen tests. What update on both can the Taoiseach provide us with?

Finally, on the roll-out of high efficiency particulate air, HEPA, filtration in classrooms, CO2 devices monitor air quality but HEPA filters actively remove contaminants from the air. Does the Taoiseach agree with that and what does he intend to do about it?

I dropped my own children to primary school this morning and was speaking to my wife, who is a teacher in another school in Nenagh, at lunchtime and the volume of children and teachers who are out of school is something that all Deputies are experiencing and hearing about and it is the same thing across the country. We need to work together to try to find as many solutions as we can.

On antigen testing the Ferguson report recommended it last April. I presume the Government is open to tweaking the system because it needs to be tweaked and the antigen tests need to be based in the schools instead of being posted out afterwards and this is my honest assessment. This is something we all must collectively change.

I also ask the Government to consider buying HEPA air filters as they would be a good investment throughout this virus. We should just do it. Ventilation is critically important.

On vaccines, post-Christmas, now that we have a report from the European Medicines Agency, will that vaccination be done through the schools?

Finally, on the leaving certificate, I heard, accept and, in fact, agree with what the Taoiseach said earlier, probably, but is there are a continuing analysis of the fact that so many students at leaving certificate level have missed so many hours and days and teachers have also been out of the schools?

On repeated occasions I have raised with this Government and the one previous to this, the fury of parents, the school community and local residents at the decision of the Christian Brothers to sell off the school playing fields of Clonkeen College in Dún Laoghaire. The Government has failed to intervene and the Christian Brothers are continuing to push through with that decision to sell off to private property developers the school playing fields.

In the past week the parents were absolutely shocked to get a letter from the Christian Brothers, from the Edmund Rice Schools Trust, saying that it was not reappointing a board of management to the school but was going to have one manager and no board. This is despite the fact that the parents and teachers have put forward representatives who could have formed a board. The trust is empowered to do this under a statutory instrument brought in in 1998 by the former Minister for Education, Michael Woods, which means that the school simply has to notify the Government - I would like to know if it has done so - that they cannot supposedly find suitable people for the board. This is retaliation by the Christian Brothers against the parents, teachers and school community because they oppose what the Christian Brothers are doing. Will the Taoiseach intervene and prevent them from doing this because this has wide implications for other schools?

I want to raise with the Taoiseach again the question of HEPA filters in our schools. Yesterday the Minister for Health told RTÉ radio that the expert group within the HSE had looked at this, namely HEPA filters in schools, in great detail and its advice to the Department of Education and to the Department of Health is that they are not recommended. Exactly what the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, was referring to there is not clear from anything that is published on the relevant websites. The NPHET expert group on ventilation recommended back in March that HEPA filters would be useful for schools, particularly for winter months when it is not possible to have windows open all day.

The report stated that HEPA filter devices "may be useful in reducing airborne transmission in spaces with insufficient ventilation". Yesterday, Dr. Kim Roberts, a member of the expert group, spoke at a press conference we organised about our ventilation Bill and the need for HEPA filters in schools. The Department of Education, in May this year, said that, in a certain scenario, consideration should be given to a room air cleaner with a HEPA filter. When will the Government change its position and invest in HEPA filters for every classroom?

I want to raise the situation in the early childhood years sector. We have seen good interventions by the Government over the past week in addressing substitute teacher shortages in primary schools and, yesterday, in secondary schools. Some of those measures are very positive and will lead to a huge influx of people back into classrooms, stabilising the whole system at a time when we really want to keep schools open. It very much concerns me, however, that the incidence of Covid in crèches and childcare settings has increased by 500% over recent weeks. It should be noted that this is consistent with other age cohorts. Covid is simply on the rise. The same actions the Government is taking to address staff shortages at primary and secondary level must now be taken in the preschool context. In a recent SIPTU survey, one third of childcare managers said their facilities are now at risk of closing and 61% said they will have to reduce capacity if all things remain equal. We need to get the students in their final year of preschool studies in our third level centres back in.

Contact tracing was removed from the primary school context in late September, when the rate of Covid infections was in a very different space.

Go raibh maith agat, Deputy.

Tracing should be brought back in now to alleviate the pressure so many primary school teachers, principals and parents are facing at this time.

What is the Government doing to increase the number of apprenticeships, especially in construction trades? This is of crucial importance for building new homes and for meeting our climate change and retrofitting targets. Apprenticeships in key construction trades, such as bricklaying and plastering, are at only some 10% of their 2004 levels. In other countries, such as the UK and Norway, public contracts for large infrastructure projects include a clause that a percentage of the workforce must be made up of apprentices. In South Australia, for example, 15% of labour hours on specified public contracts are for apprentices and other targeted groups who need upskilling. What is the Government doing to increase the number of apprenticeships in key construction trades? Will it consider similar clauses in public contracts to ensure a percentage of the workforce is made up of apprentices?

I have raised with the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the need to intensify co-operation and collaboration on an all-Ireland basis in the whole area of further education. In fairness, the Minister, Deputy Harris, has indicated strongly his interest in this specific area. In the context of the establishment of the new Department and the shared island initiative, further education could be a real beneficiary and its further development would be of major benefit to students for generations to come on a cross-Border and all-Ireland basis. At present, there is cross-Border co-operation on an ad hoc basis. As we move forward, we should have structured co-operation on an all-Ireland basis. Cavan Institute, the first board of management of which I had the privilege of chairing, became the first dedicated post-leaving certificate college in 1999. It is the leading further education provider in the southern Border region. Specific arrangements should be put in place to intensify and lead co-operation on an all-Ireland, cross-Border basis by having specific sister college arrangements with similar institutes in Northern Ireland.

It is an area we need to drive forward and to which we must give momentum.

In September, the German federal Government spent €200 million on air purifiers for schools and childcare centres. Here, HEPA air purifiers could be provided for every Irish classroom at a cost of approximately €12 million. However, the Government has decided not to take this step. I find this incredible, given that Covid is an airborne disease and our school buildings house school communities of approximately 1 million people, five days a week and for six hours most days. Members of the State's expert group on ventilation, a subcommittee of NPHET, has been critical of the Government's failure on this front. Indeed, four of them were forced to go public yesterday to challenge comments made by the Minister for Health on this issue. Children have been asked to forgo Christmas parties and pantomimes and they are shivering in the cold in their classrooms. People are doing that. When is the Government going to do the right thing by them and put air filtration systems into every classroom in the State?

There were eight speakers but the time is limited for the Taoiseach to respond.

First, I noticed references in a lot of contributions to the Government having ended contact tracing or the Government having decided this or that. It was a decision the Government took at the time, on 27 September, following, and in line with, recommendations from NPHET, to cease routine contact tracing. It was public health advice.

It was a Government decision.

Does Deputy Murphy accept it was based on public health advice?

Does the Taoiseach accept it was a Government decision?

What I do not accept is the deliberate narrative created by Deputies that it was a decision taken without any reference to public health whatsoever. This is from the very same Deputies who will argue consistently for the need to adhere not only to public health advice but to even more severe public health advice in respect of zero Covid and so on. When it suits them, they turn it all around and say that anything they do not like is done by the Government, not on the basis of public health advice. It was the Government working on the advice from public health that took this decision because, at the time, the view was it was leading to disruption within schools and children being out of school. The Deputies cannot have it both ways, but Deputy Murphy tends to have it both ways and each and every way every time he comes in here.

The Taoiseach can check the record. We are extremely consistent on this.

In terms of HEPA filtrators and ventilation, guidance has been issued to schools and an expert group was formed. The fundamental view of that group, by the way, is that the most important ventilation is fresh air. That is the most basic rule of thumb it has applied. On the costings, people have magically come up with a figure of €12 million. I have been given an estimate that it could cost up to €80 million if every single classroom were to be ventilated with a HEPA filter. Again, that can be worked through. What cannot be argued with is that hundreds of millions have been allocated to our education system for Covid preparedness. The fact there are up to 35,000 CO2 monitors in schools throughout the country, in almost all classrooms, has been very important. I have touched base with some schools in this respect and they have found it very useful in terms of managing their way through this. In respect of air filtration in schools, there is a facility there to avail of that, working with departmental technical people who will advise schools that are in difficulty in regard to ventilation and help them to put in ventilation systems. That facility is there and there is also the minor capital works programme and so on. There is a sufficiency of capital there for people to have bespoke solutions for their particular school, because every school is different.

The most important advice to give to schools and preschool settings is that where children are symptomatic, they should not be sent to school. That is the most fundamental advice. As I keep on saying, one of the biggest issues for the past three months has been respiratory syncytial virus, RSV, in terms of children getting ill and being hospitalised. RSV and other respiratory illnesses have been the dominant issue this winter among children, which has proved challenging. The symptomatic advice applies across the board and will be very helpful. Someone said earlier that parents were sending children in with a spoonful or two of Calpol. That is not the thing to do.

Antigen testing has been introduced and 8,000 tests were dispatched. I take Deputy Kelly's point and will follow up and reflect on it. The target now is to get to the Christmas break, recalibrate and review how we deal with the next semester. The advice we have received this week from the public health doctors is that they believe children should reduce their socialising. Why? They showed us graphs yesterday, which they published, showing that infections among five- to 11-year-olds are going through the roof in terms of numbers, or had been for the past number of weeks, as well as among their parents. They are the two big bars in the graph showing where the numbers have gone up. They want to bring that level down, just like we did in the rest of the population. Two weeks ago, our public messaging worked in terms of making a statement asking people to follow the advice on working from home and our exhortations to people to reduce their socialising. That has led to a moderation and stabilisation of hospital and ICU numbers, but we are still at too high a level of incidence. The same advice now is being applied to children from the public health doctors, namely, that if we can reduce socialising overall, we could turn that curve the other way, which is down, in terms of those case numbers.

Thank you, Taoiseach.

I did not get to every question. In response to Deputy Cian O'Callaghan, we are working on apprenticeships. There has been a big change in the new scheme we have introduced.

Deputy Brendan Smith made a very good point on further education. There needs to be more structured co-operation and I am working on that through the shared island initiative. We are endeavouring to get the various education institutions together and we will support partnerships. I would be interested in a further education partnership. Work is under way in terms of third level and research partnerships. Further education partnerships would be something we would look favourably on, in particular in Border areas where there is a lot of co-operation. I accept that needs to be more structured.

We need to move on.

Deputy Boyd Barrett asked about Clonkeen College. I will follow that matter up with the Minister for Education. Some clause in the 1998 Act has probably been invoked, and therefore a manager has to be put in place. That appears to me to be regressive. Let me follow through on that. I do not have the full answer here. I will alert the Minister for Education to the issue.

Deputy Cathal Crowe dealt with contact tracing, five- to 11-year-olds and other school measures. The new substitute teaching measures will make a difference. Deputy Crowe has been to the fore in coming up with innovative solutions, and I pay tribute to him for that. They have borne fruit.

We need to move on to Question No. 12.