‘We must maintain social solidarity on pandemic bonus’ - minister
Details of the bonus or reward will not be announced on Budget Day
THE pandemic bonus will now be tailored by the Government in consultation with the social partners, public expenditure minister Michael McGrath has declared.
But it must not become a source of division when its aim is to mark national unity, he suggested.
Matters like a new bank holiday, direct final payments or a voucher are thus back on the table, along with any new suggestions that may emerge from the trade unions and employers— with no decisions taken as yet.
Details of the bonus or reward will not be announced on Budget Day, Mr McGrath also disclosed.
The discussions would take time and require consideration, and “I don’t believe that will be a Budget Day issue,” he declared.
“We run the risk of serious divisions in society on the back of it,” he said of the thank-you package.
A large volume of emails and other contacts were coming in to his own office on the issue, as with other ministers, and there were strong feelings in different directions.
“A lot of people are expressing views, and there is not a consensus,” he said.
It will be a “collaborative approach” with a broad range of worker representatives and business, he said.
“This isn’t about the Government having a conversation with itself, because we don’t have a monopoly on wisdom."
But Mr McGrath said the key aim was to prevent a recognition of people who rose to the Covid challenge turning into a sudden source of social dissension.
“I’m just really conscious that solidarity has been the hallmark of our approach to Covid-19. And as we hopefully exit the worst of the pandemic, it's important that we maintain that social solidarity,” he told the Dáil committee on Budgetary Oversight.
The Government was now consulting on how to find a way to provide “some special recognition to those who have gone above and beyond,” he said.
“There is an industrial relations context here. Certain claims were lodged by the INMO and by other health unions, and the Labour Court issued a recommendation last week to request Government to now engage intensively,” he said.
Mr McGrath said the most likely timeframe for the bonus was “in the coming weeks, and certainly before the end of the year.”
"We don’t want this to drag on and on.”
He pointed out that the vast majority of nursing homes in Ireland were privately run, and the caregivers in this sector were
absolutely at the coal-face of the crisis, which showed the complexity of the issue of State recognition of their efforts.
“We will strive to be as fair as we possibly can be,” he said.
“But people look at fairness through their own lens.”
Mr McGrath revealed he had raised the issue at a pre-Budget meeting with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions on Wednesday,
He had asked for their views, he said, “and they agreed with my own assessment — that what we need here is a collaborative approach.
“We will now be consulting in detail with the social partners (unions and employers), to come up with an agreed way forward, whereby we can deliver at appropriate recognition — which also acknowledges and commemorates the fact that over 5,000 people in Ireland died from Covid-19, and to do it in a way that also expresses gratitude to all of those on the front line."
Some recognition is “absolutely appropriate and warranted for the extraordinary efforts of so many people across society over the course of living with Covid-19 in the last 18 months,” he said.
At the very front of the frontline were healthcare workers, he acknowledged.
It's important that we approach this in a very considered way and in a careful way, because there are a lot of people across society, certainly in our health service but also on other frontline public services, who did go above and beyond.
“Many of them took considerable personal risk to protect the rest of us. And I think the Irish people, and those on the frontline in particular, have been nothing short of extraordinary over that period of time,” he said.
But he added: “I think we all have renewed sense of appreciation of the roles played by so many people in different parts of the private sector — people who are cleaners, who work in our retail sector, in tourism and hospitality, all of whom took risk and went out on the front line.”
People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett said the current engagement was the right approach, mentioning public transport workers and carers, along with many who had different experiences and roles.
Dublin Bus workers, “after all they did for us”, had been presented with a reconfiguration plan that would have meant working longer hours and destroyed their quality of life, he noted.
He called for longer-term lessons to be learned in the context of some sectors that had chronic low pay — while a windfall tax on some areas that experienced extraordinary profits during the pandemic should also be considered.
Mr McGrath said it was challenging and complex, but the dialogue with the social partners would be held in an open and honest way.