TDs have said it is not acceptable that the Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has been away at a health expo in Dubai for the last week, while there are "serious problems" he should be concentrating on at home.
Meanwhile, the Minister of State for Public Health Frank Feighan has said Covid-19 protective measures will remain in schools until the end of this month.
Mr Donnelly and secretary general Robert Watt arrived in Dubai last Thursday ahead of a series of meetings with technology companies, other health ministers and health workers.
It is understood they flew economy class to attend the health and wellness week of the event and went to meetings on tackling future pandemics and the next stage of Covid-19.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin said their attendance was part of the Global Ireland 2025 initiative and there was a lot of economic leverage and economic opportunities in the health arena.
Speaking during statements on the easing of Covid-19 restrictions in the Dáil on Wednesday, Social Democrats co-leader Róisín Shortall said the Minister for Health was yet again not present, adding “this has been the case for the last week”.
“There’s been a number of different health debates and it’s really not acceptable that he isn’t here and doing his job as Minister for Health,” the Dublin North-West TD said.
Ms Shortall pointed to the south Kerry Camhs scandal, issues around mental health services across the country and a motion put forward by her party earlier on costs for cancer patients.
“The idea of the Minister for Health being off in Dubai with the secretary general for over a week, or what will be over a week, is just not acceptable, especially given the nature of the event he’s at,” he said.
Ms Shortall said she was “gobsmacked” to hear the Taosieach’s justification for Mr Donnelly’s attendance at the expo last week, in which he spoke about “leveraging capital and he talked about making important contacts and networking with the business community”.
“That’s nothing to do with public health. The Minister and his secretary general are charged with providing a properly functioning public health service, we patently don’t have that. There are serious problems and he should be concentrating on that rather than what appears to be feeding the kind of creeping privatisation that’s going on,” Ms Shortall added.
Independent TD Catherine Connolly said Mr Donnelly's absence due to the expo was "entirely unacceptable" and that the ministers of state (Butler, Feighan and Rabbitte) present on his behalf appeared to be "totally overworked".
Labour's health spokesperson Duncan Smith said while he knew ministers need to travel on occasion, the health minister "isn't here again", pointing to a number of health related motions that had come before the Dáil in recent days.
“With the minister not being here and being over in Dubai at some wellness expo quite frankly I think it’s disappointing,” he said.
“And being with the secretary general at a week where the pay increase has been accepted, I think if anyone should be getting an acting up allowance I think it should be the ministers of state over the last week given that they’re the ones who have been doing the work here in the Dáil and committee on health related matters.”
Nursing home visits
Minister of State for Mental Health and Older People Mary Butler said while new guidance comes into effect next week for nursing home visits, she had received correspondence "highlighting that in some cases visiting is not being facilitated at all nursing homes".
“I want to be clear that this is not acceptable in the absence of a clear public health or infection prevention and control rationale. I wish to remind nursing home providers of their obligations for facilitating visiting in nursing homes and the rights of residents to receive visitors,” she said.
Mr Feighan said while the majority of Covid-19 restrictions have been lifted, the pandemic is “not over” and the threat of new variants remains.
He said protective measures in school will continue until the end of February.