Government stumbles in efforts to allay workers financial fears

Sending out mixed messages to workers and businesses is not very reassuring

Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation Heather Humphreys and Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation Heather Humphreys and Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

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It’s been a calamitous week as tens of thousands of workers find themselves either temporarily laid off, put on half pay or forced to work remotely as infection and the need for social distance dictate a rapid shift in workplace culture.

As well as hammering home the need for civic responsibility if we are to stem the Covid-19 crisis, the Government has been scrambling to address fears of workers who are suddenly without jobs – and their employers – as well as providing peace of mind for business and personal borrowers.

But on each of these two significant undertakings, the Government has been guilty of delivering mixed messages that serve only to further alarm and confuse an already distracted public.

The Government said employers could reclaim €203 weekly from the State for money paid to workers laid off

On Wednesday, Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe met the leaders of the five big lenders in the Irish market. Flexibility for over-stretched borrowers was the focus with promises.

Shortly after the protracted meeting, the Minister said on air that he did not expect interest to accrue on loans during forbearance periods. Not so, said the banks. Interest would continue to apply even during payment holidays – in other words, already stressed borrowers would be left with bigger bills.

It’s not a small point and one that was compounded just 24 hours later.

Earlier, on Sunday, the Government said employers would be able to reclaim €203 weekly from the State for money paid to workers they were having to lay off. However, by Thursday, it emerged that any employer looking to do better for their staff by paying anything over this amount would be denied any refund at all.

That left the Government scrambling on Friday for a fix all over again.

The Government should be praised for providing some security in a crisis to a large number of people who find themselves in dire circumstances. But if it is going to intervene, the outcome needs to the clear and positive. Making a hames of those efforts will inevitably leave it open to criticism – and rightly so.

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