Q&A: What is happening with the plan for a pandemic bonus?

Jack Horgan-Jones on whether the Government has hit on the perfect way to divide a nation (almost) united by Covid-19

So, just what is agreed on the pandemic bonus?

Aside from the principle, very little, it seems. Around Leinster House and its wider environs, there is near-unanimity on the idea that something should be done to recognise the contribution of frontline workers who put in extra hours at personal risk during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The problems start to emerge, however, at every point thereafter.

Like what?

The first concern - and the one that is causing the most agitation in Government - is the idea that a payment in and of itself could be divisive. Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath, Minister for Justice Heather Humphreys and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar have all said this in recent days.

Few would object to the idea that someone who was suited up in PPE and delivering care to Covid patients would be included as a frontline worker, but as Varadkar has been fond of saying, the pandemic has changed our sense of what a frontline worker is.

READ MORE

Those working in retail, waste collection and other jobs that had to be done outside the home now all have a logical claim. The Taoiseach specifically name-checked retail workers last week.

Many other sectors, not least the teachers and Gardaí, have a reasonable claim too, and their unions have started making this very point.

How much would it cost?

The only really firm number we have is €377 million, which would be the cost of paying for 10 extra days leave for healthcare workers, rising to €1 billion if that was spread across the public sector. However, healthcare unions have disputed this and the final cost would ultimately depend on the form and scope of the bonus.

What are the politics of all this?

The Government has lost control of this debate since that figure emerged and crystallised the very real budgetary impact of a bonus. There is an expectation within the coalition that this would be paid for by 2021 revenues, with underspending in some Departments and strong tax revenues potentially footing the bill.

This would mean it wouldn’t necessarily reduce room for manoeuvre in an already-tight budget package. However, for most people, that’s a rather esoteric matter.

The real political risk is in turning what could be a good news story into a bitter war of words over whose work, sacrifice and risk is more valued, especially at a time when so many have a legitimate case after having endured so much since March 2020.

And what are the politicians saying?

Government figures are nervous. "We must be inclusive and not run the risk, as we near the end of Covid, of creating divides within our country," one Fine Gael Minister said.

Those with memories long enough to encompass the Beacon, Golfgate and Merriongate controversies may raise an eyebrow at the idea there have been no divisions during the pandemic in Ireland, but overall, the political point is well made, and the risk is real.

John Lahart, a Fianna Fáil backbencher who sits on the budgetary oversight committee, said the idea of a bonus is "well intentioned but fraught with danger", adding that it "could become like who was in the GPO".

He supports a bank holiday and is not against a bonus payment, but views it as risky. Some also believe there should be no rush on this. “Getting it right is more important than doing it quickly,” one Fine Gael source said.

However, this is firmly on the agenda, and backbenchers aren’t likely to let it drop. Ciarán Cannon, a Fine Gael member of the budgetary oversight committee is clear:

“Those in the public and private sector who were providing essential services during the pandemic should receive the bonus. Those essential services were outlined quite clearly in government briefings at the time and it shouldn’t be difficult to determine who exactly was obliged to remain working while the rest of us were safe at home,” he said - note the inclusion of the private sector.

What about an extra bank holiday?

Of all the ideas, this seems to be the most concrete and the most likely to come to pass. Government sources say it is almost certain, with budget day being eyed for an announcement.

However, while the universality of this appeals, frontline workers may either see this as inadequate or misjudged, or not being sufficiently targeted at those who risked the most.

And vouchers?

Like every potential solution, it seems, problems attach themselves to the idea that vouchers worth a few hundred euro could be given to frontline workers.

This would be tax-free up to €500, but again, it doesn’t sort out who is going to be considered a frontline worker.

They would have to be procured, which may take time, and while it may be less expensive than 10 days paid leave, it would not necessarily be inexpensive. Tax credits could also be examined, but there is an associated question of how tangible a change on that front could be, as well as how immediately it would be felt.

When will we hear more?

That is hard to say. The fact it has become a political issue may encourage the Government to address it before budget day, but a way to do so neatly is certainly not obvious.

The Government may have been hoping the pandemic bonus could give an associated political bonus. At this juncture, that looks unlikely.

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones is a political reporter with The Irish Times