Frontline health workers will get a €1,000 tax-free bonus for their work during the pandemic under plans agreed by Cabinet.
Workers in nursing homes and hospices are also in line for the bonus.
It has been agreed that the once-off tax free payment for healthcare workers and frontline workers will include Defence Forces personnel who conducted testing during the height of the crisis. Payment will also apply to student nurses but on a pro rata approach, depending on their length of placement.
Meanwhile, there is to be an extra public holiday on March 18th this year, and one on the first Monday of February in future years to mark St Brigid’s Day.
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath and Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly outlined details of the plan on Wednesday afternoonfollowing the Cabinet meeting.
Mr Varadkar told a press conference that there would be a once-off public holiday on March 18th, which would follow the bank holiday for St Patrick’s Day on March 17th. It will give citizens a four-day weekend. The new bank holiday is to commemorate those who lost their lives during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The bank holiday will be retained but will take place on the first Monday of February from 2023 or on Friday, if it falls on February 1st.
“It’s been two long years since the pandemic began and 9,000 people have lost their lives due to Covid.
“We have taken [these] actions to remember those who lost their lives and to recoup all those workers, volunteers and members of the public including front line healthcare workers,” said the Tánaiste.
He said there would be a formal State event to remember those who had died that weekend, probably on Sunday, March 20th.
The February festival will commemorate St Brigid and also the ancient Celtic festival, Imbolg which marks the midpoint between the Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox.
Mr Donnelly said all public sector frontline health staff who work in clinical settings will get the payment. Cleaners and porters, for example, would also be included.
“It will be anyone who was on site and involved and had to be in and around where patients are,” siad Mr Donnelly.
Private nursing homes and hospices are also being included.
As for the Defence Forces, he said the payment would be made to personnel who are on site in testing centres and those who were on site in vaccine centres.
Mr Donnelly also told the conference that those working with swabs laboratories would be also be entitled but the payment would not be extended to those working in private sector companies which provided testing services.
Mr Donnelly said the situation in relation to Covid-19 was encouraging.
“Over 2.6 million have received boosters, many more will be boosted once they are three months clear of infection,” he said.
Mr McGrath said the total cost of the payment would be above €100 million for healthcare workers and more when other key workers were taken into account.
He said the decision on the payment being tax-free was taken as Government did not want to be embroiled in a debate where a payment of €1,000 was made and then half of it was removed in tax payments.
“When this cruel virus prevented family members from being with loved ones it was our health care staff who held their hands and comforted them in their final moments of life,” he said.
He said it was appropriate in that setting to make the once off ex-gratia payment.
Mr McGrath said the cost of the public holiday would be €50 million. He said from a public sector point of view, the Government had to ensure that all services remained fully operational.
Mr Varadkar said that for employers it worked out as a de facto increase of 0.3 per cent or 0.4 per cent in payroll costs. Both Ministers said that there would be benefits for the economy as there would be additional bonus payments on the day.
Mr McGrath also outlined the rationale on where the Government drew the line on payments. “When coming to singling out health care staff [we thought] that on its own was the most fair and simplest and most effective demonstration of our recognition”.
Last September, Mr Varadkar suggested that a pandemic bonus should be extended to workers in the wider civil service as well.
He was asked at the press conference what he would say to people who won’t be getting the payment.
Mr Varadkar said his message to people working in retail and Government departments and to members of the Garda is that “we do recognise the extra work that you did and that’s why we’re introducing this additional paid public holiday.”
He said it will be an extra day’s pay, a day off, or both.
Mr Varadkar added that healthcare staff wearing gowns and masks and exposed to Covid-19 in clinical settings “should receive special recognition”.
He said that is why there are two elements - the public holiday that everyone in the public and private sector will benefit from and the cash bonus for healthcare workers.
“The reality is that if you go beyond healthcare it gets really difficult to know where to draw a line,” added Mr McGrath.
“We have about 350,000 public servants, many of whom did go beyond normal duties over the course of the last two years, and we acknowledge that.”
He said the extra public holiday will be “general recognition for everyone”.
He said that some people “did put themselves at risk” and their work is appreciated but “we came to the view overall, as a government, that singling out health care and health care on its own was the most fair, simplest and most effective demonstration of our support in particular for that sector.”
Mr McGrath said public sector workers will be getting two pay increases this year and he is also to consider changes to working hours recommended by the body set up to examine the Haddington Road agreement.
He said some private employers have provided recognition for staff, that not all can afford to do it, but some “may well decide to take the lead from the Government initiative.”
Mr McGrath said the Government tried to handle the bonus issue sensitively and carefully and the decision is “one that we can stand over”.
Labour Party leader Alan Kelly raised the issue in the Dáil, telling Taoiseach Micheál Martin there is “confusion” over who will get the bonus.
He cited community home helps and family carers and people working in pharmacies and asked would they qualify. “I think broadly speaking we all agree that they should.”
Mr Kelly also raised Mr Varadkar’s previous suggestion that the wider civil service should benefit and asked if that is “gone off the table”.
“Are you ruling out anything for transport workers, postal workers, gardaí, Defence Forces?” he asked.
Mr Martin did not address the situation for individual groups of workers.
He said the Government acknowledges the contribution made by all workers during the pandemic and “particularly our healthcare workers” who have “faced many challenges and have risen to the task” and the package of measures approved by the Government recognises these efforts.
He said the public holiday is recognition of the efforts of the general public and all workers during the pandemic.