No change to Government schedule for pub and restaurant reopening – Tánaiste

Reform needed as pandemic shows limited illness benefit for many frontline workers, Varadkar says

While Leo Varadkar says he didn’t like to see the large gatherings at the weekend, ‘we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact we are actually encouraging people to be outdoors, outdoors is much safer than indoors’. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

While Leo Varadkar says he didn’t like to see the large gatherings at the weekend, ‘we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact we are actually encouraging people to be outdoors, outdoors is much safer than indoors’. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

The prospect of pubs and restaurants being allowed to reopen for outdoor service in advance of the bank holiday weekend has been ruled out by the Tánaiste. The cabinet decision to reopen on Monday stood, although the Government did “toy” with the possibility of reopening sooner, he said.

Industry bodies had suggested last Friday that bringing the date forward would represent a significant boost to the hospitality industry but their case may not have been helped by events in cities on Saturday.

While he said he didn’t like to see the scenes which circulated at the weekend, “we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact we are actually encouraging people to be outdoors, outdoors is much safer than indoors”.

He said there should be more bins in public areas, as well as the provision of public facilities and public toilets, and that one solution being examined would involve pubs, restaurants and shops allowing people to use their bathrooms.

Sick pay scheme

The Government is aiming to have a new statutory sick pay scheme in place by the start of next year, he said meanwhile.

Mr Varadkar, who is Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, told Newstalk’s Hard Shoulder programme he intended to bring a memo on the sick pay scheme to Cabinet in June.

“Ideally, my target is to have it in place at the end of this year or probably the first of January next year,” he said.

The Government had initially hoped to publish details of the scheme during the Spring, but Mr Varadkar said it would be difficult to bring in the new laws during Covid, when many businesses were not making money.

He said that the pandemic had shown that many people in frontline positions are working in roles with limited illness benefits, and that while enhanced Covid-linked provisions were in place, longer-term reforms were needed.

However, he confirmed that employers will be asked to shoulder much of the cost for the first period of someone’s illness. “The burden will fall largely on the employers in the initial weeks, and subsequently an enhanced illness benefit system paid for by the social insurance fund will take over.”

He said that the level of payment under the scheme would be significantly higher than the £90 (€105) per week paid in Northern Ireland, which he said was “totally inadequate in my view”. However, he warned that the introduction would be a gradual process with enhancements coming over a period of years, rather than a “Rolls Royce option in year one”.

Pension

Meanwhile, he said pension auto-enrolment could come in as soon as 2023 or 2024, and promised that when it did, the State’s contributory pension would remain in place. Removing it, he said, would be an “appalling abrogation of everything we’re trying to do. The whole point of this is that it should be additional, it would be in addition to the State contributory pension which the vast majority of people now qualify for”.

He said he hoped that the living wage would kick in in 2023, followed by auto-enrolment. “Over a period of three years, we’ll have made some pretty major changes to employment rights and terms and conditions in Ireland,” he said, but added: “We need to do it in a way that businesses can afford and a way that doesn’t damage competitiveness or reduce employment or cause people to have their hours cut.”