Coronavirus: Companies could be compensated for disruption

Top official’s remarks come as Ibec calls for emergency employee payments

A member of the Central Bank’s 1,900 staff is being tested for coronavirus, according to the organisation.

However, the bank said that its premises in Dublin’s north docklands will continue to operate as normal until the results are known, in line with guidance received from the Health Service Executive (HSE).

“The staff member has been in contact with the HSE and are currently in self-isolation, in line with HSE advice,” a spokesman for the bank said. “This individual has not been present in any of our premises since last Friday.”

The spokesman added: “The Central Bank has sought advice from the HSE and we are following their guidance closely. The HSE’s advice is that we should carry on as normal and that, should a case of Covid-19 be confirmed, the guidance in relation to contact tracing by public health officials will commence.”

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The bank said it is committed to the privacy of the colleague at this time and “will take all necessary steps to ensure the welfare of our staff”.

State officials are looking at financial supports for companies affected by the coronavirus outbreak, the top civil servant at the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation has said.

Irish companies importing and exporting face potential disruptions to their supply and sales chains because of cross-border travel restrictions and lockdowns to prevent the spread of the virus.

Speaking on the fringes of a conference in Dublin, Orlaigh Quinn, secretary general of Department of Business, told The Irish Times that financial supports for business to tide them over through the impact of the Covid-19 outbreak were being considered.

“That is something we are looking at. That is something that we will collectively be deciding on at Government level,” Dr Quinn said.

The preparatory work carried out in anticipation of a hard Brexit was assisting the department in contingency planning around how to the business community, she said.

“Different sectors will be impacted but certainly work that we would have done in terms of that emergency planning could come into play depending on the response required and depending on Government decisions.”

The aim of State supports would be “to try to get companies through a period where they are under severe pressure and perhaps their funding isn’t in place,” Dr Quinn said.

The civil servant was speaking at the Transatlantic Conference 2020 event hosted organised by the American Chamber of Commerce Ireland at Croke Park's conference centre in Dublin. The event was sponsored by Aer Lingus, law firm Matheson and The Irish Times.

Ireland’s EU commissioner Phil Hogan, who spoke at the conference, said that the EU could sign off on financial supports for companies if a member state requested a relaxation of state aid rules based on evidence showing how a particular business or industry was affected by the outbreak.

“There is provision made in the legislation for exceptional measures to be taken in the event that there is an exceptional set of circumstances - coronavirus clearly comes into that category,” he told The Irish Times.

Dr Quinn’s comments coincide with a call from business group Ibec for the introduction of a special emergency welfare payment to support employees impacted by the coronavirus.

Chief executive Danny McCoy on Thursday wrote to the acting minister for employment affairs Regina Doherty urging her to introduce the payment for a two-week period for those affected by the spread of the virus which causes the illness known as Covid-19.

Ibec said the payment should be at the rate of the Job Seekers Benefit, the full weekly rate of which is €203.

Escalation risks

In his letter, Mr McCoy said that with the spread of the virus escalating globally there is a possibility of widespread illness and other disruption locally. He warned this may lead to businesses closing or reducing operating hours, possibly resulting in employees earning less.

Providing a payment would, Mr McCoy insisted, not only help individuals get through the disruption but also minimise the risk of people continuing to go into work and spreading the virus if they have been exposed.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) backed Ibec’s call with director Mary Connaughton emphasising the need for such a payment to also cover the self-employed and those without full contributions.

Ibec’s intervention comes as the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in the Republic has risen to six with a further three in the North.

A number of companies, particularly those operating in the tech sector, have already asked employees to work from home. Many others have restricted non- essential business travel.

More large companies are also testing their ability to function with remote workforces.

Employees based at Vodafone Ireland’s headquarters in Mountainview, south Dublin, will work from home on Friday as part of the company’s “ongoing coronavirus business continuity planning and testing”, it has announced.

“ It’s important that as a business we are fully prepared for any possible future scenario, prioritising the health and safety of our employees,” a spokesman said.

Primark, the fashion chain that operates in the Republic as Penneys, has also asked employees at its Dublin headquarters as well as its office in Reading to work from home tomorrow to test its operational readiness and IT capability should an incident arise that obliges it to close these offices temporarily.

The company stressed that it had not had any cases of Covid-19 amongst its workforce.

Globally, more than 93,000 people have been diagnosed with Covid-19.

Facebook planning

Another speaker at the Croke Park event, Gareth Lambe, head of Facebook Ireland, said the social media company had not yet planned a day to work from home "as a fire drill" but that it has tested for all sorts of scenarios including catastrophic disasters and terror attacks in the past, he said.

“We are looking at all scenarios. We have implemented some measures about non-essential travel like a lot of other companies,” said Mr Lambe.

“We haven’t planned necessarily or certainly set a date yet to test or fire drill something like that. We might start with certain teams.”

The Government's chief scientific adviser, Mark Ferguson, director general at Science Foundation Ireland, urged firms to test their plans for a more severe coronavirus outbreak.

“Get out your business continuity plan, dust it off and rehearse it,” Prof Ferguson said by way of advice, in addition to the universal “wash your hands” directive issued in response to the health crisis.

“The risk to business is that you get a crisis, you are shut down when you are not prepared for it. Basically that is why the rehearsals are important. In today’s world, you can do a lot virtually. You can do a lot online,” he said.

“It is just important to understand that through no fault of the business you could be in quarantine for 14 days at least and so how are you going to run your business as best you can on 14 days?”

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent

Charlie Taylor

Charlie Taylor

Charlie Taylor is a former Irish Times business journalist

Joe Brennan

Joe Brennan

Joe Brennan is Markets Correspondent of The Irish Times