Tánaiste and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar has told his party's Ard Fheis that Ireland needs to build 40,000 homes a year, so that the dream of home ownership can once again become a reality.

He told the virtual meeting that he wants to set a target of 70% home ownership by the end of the decade, which is to be achieved through public and private investment.

Mr Varadkar claimed that other political parties "talk", but Fine Gael "builds".

The Tánaiste said the health services should retain the additional staff and billions of euro in extra funding
which was provided to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic.

He said that Sláintecare, with its promise of affordable healthcare for all, must be implemented - including expanding medical card eligibility, while reducing expenses for medicines and hospital charges.

Mr Varadkar said the national response to the pandemic was Ireland at its best, in which people learned that "we can achieve the impossible when we work together for a common cause."

He said: "Let's make this the new normal."

The Fine Gael leader said a legacy of the pandemic must be better pay, terms and conditions for all workers, both public and private sector.

He claimed his party would "take the lead" on this through the introduction of statutory sick pay, the move to a living wage and access to an occupational pension for all employees.

Mr Varadkar said it would also mean reforming Ireland's social welfare system to provide a better safety net for people who lose their jobs or take time out to care for others.

He said that Fine Gael was about "backing business and supporting enterprise" and he committed the party to retaining pandemic financial supports "for as long as they are needed."

He repeated his commitment that there will be no increases in income taxes "by stealth or by design."

Mr Varadkar concluded his speech by saying: "After the pandemic we will never go back to the old way of doing things.

"We showed the world what we could achieve in the worst of circumstances. We showed each other what we can be at our best.

"We proved that politics can be about achieving what was once thought impossible. In the years ahead, this must be our guiding light and our inspiration, as we build a better future for all."

Earlier, Minister of State Peter Burke told the Ard Fheis that everyone in the party is "all so aware how urgent it is" to deliver on housing and they recognised the "huge frustration" that people are experiencing.

Minister Burke said the Land Development Agency will be a "key State actor" coming into the market place and delivering social affordable and cost-rental homes at scale for all citizens.

Dublin Mid West TD Emer Higgins, branded Sinn Féin's housing policy as nothing more than cynicism and populism.

Opposition parties criticised the commitments on health and housing given by Varadkar.

Sinn Féin said it seems it took a global pandemic for Fine Gael to see that Ireland's health services are chronically underfunded, while Aontú branded Fine Gael's housing policy as one of continual promises but under-delivery.

Aontú leader Peadar Tóibín said Fine Gael have promised to build more homes in each of their last ten years in government but only two thirds of demand has been met.

He said young families cannot live on Fine Gael promises and, what he termed, the never never delivery

Social Democrats Housing spokesman Cian O'Callaghan said that if Fine Gael is serious about restoring home ownership then it must end the sale of new build apartments to cuckoo funds.

He said the party would also have to deliver homes that are genuinely affordable and within reach.

He contended that Fine Gael would have to adopt a completely different approach to deliver for the public.

Deputy O'Callaghan said over the last 10 years that Fine Gael has been in government, rents have almost doubled, homelessness has spiralled and house prices are among the highest in Europe.

Additional reporting Tommy Meskill