Varadkar keen to avoid ‘divisive’ approach to bonus for frontline workers

Talks about reward for efforts during pandemic could go beyond budget day, says Tánaiste

 Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise Leo Varadkar on the proposed pandemic bonus: ‘It’s something we want to do. We think it’s right that the extraordinary work done by so many people is recognised in some way.’ Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise Leo Varadkar on the proposed pandemic bonus: ‘It’s something we want to do. We think it’s right that the extraordinary work done by so many people is recognised in some way.’ Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has said the Government has been concerned that the “pandemic bonus” for workers could be divisive and he indicated talks on who should be rewarded for work during Covid-19 may go beyond the announcement of the budget on October 12th.

Speaking on the last day of his trip to Washington DC, Mr Varadkar said it would be “difficult” to determine which workers would be included in the pandemic bonus. The Government has been considering a combination of measures including payments and time off as a way of rewarding frontline workers for their efforts during the pandemic.

Health workers and gardaí have sought inclusion in any pandemic bonus scheme.

Mr Varadkar suggested last week that people in the wider civil service, such as those in the Department of Social Protection who provided pandemic unemployment payments, should benefit too.

Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath has warned that the cost of a bonus for all public sector workers in the shape of two weeks’ extra holidays could be in excess of €1 billion.

Mr Varadkar was asked about a perception that a bonus would be for frontline heroes such as nurses, doctors and retail workers rather than civil servants that worked from home and where the line should be drawn on who should benefit.

He said: “I think it’s going to be difficult to because a huge number of people made an extraordinary contribution to our battle against the virus.

“It’s not just people who were working in the public sector, it’s also people who are volunteering as well... It is difficult, but we want to get it right.

“We want to recognise that extra work in some way.”

He said the Government would sit down with unions at the Labour Employer Economic Forum to work out who would be covered by the bonus which “will have to be done within certain budget constraints”.

On the prospect of unrest in the public sector if some people are left out Mr Varadkar said: “The concern that we’ve had from the outset, is that it [the bonus] could be potentially divisive. It’s something we want to do. We think it’s right that the extraordinary work done by so many people is recognised in some way.”

But Mr Varadkar said it “isn’t straightforward” adding: “even within the health service there are different groups – some who actually were working from home – some who were staffing Covid wards, with inadequate PPE [personal protective equipment] long before their vaccines”.

He said other workers are in parts of the health service that were wound down during the pandemic. He said the Government needed to “engage with the representatives of the workers and see what we can do” with a view to agreeing on a “fair way to do it”. Mr Varadkar said that the talks do not have to be resolved by budget day on October 12th. “I think it would be preferable all round that we would have this done in this financial year but it’s not a requirement that it be a budget day decision,” he said.

Earlier, Minister for Justice Heather Humphreys also said the Government must be careful to avoid a “divisive approach” to recognising the work done by frontline workers during the pandemic.

She said that Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath and Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe were working on a proposal to be brought to Cabinet.

Asked about calls from the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors for their members to be given a bonus, Ms Humphreys said that she “absolutely recongises” the work done by the Garda, as well as work done by her officials in the Department of Social Protection, where she is also Minister, in administering the pandemic unemployment payment to hundreds of thousands of people.

“We want to make sure that we have something that recognises and is fair,” she said. “We have the nurses, the doctors, the guards, many many others. And that’s only to name a few. We want to recognise their contribution and the huge commitment and sacrifices indeed that they made during the pandemic and we will do that in a way that is appropriate”.

Asked about the Green Party’s stance on the issue of 100 per cent redress for Mica-affected homeowners, Minister for Children and Green Party TD Roderic O’Gorman said the party recognised the original scheme needed to be broadened, but he did not commit to any one approach, saying he wanted to see the proposals being worked on by Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien.

He did not comment on Mr O’Brien’s claim on Monday that the property market was not out of control, saying he believed the Government’s Housing for All plan was the way to solve the housing crisis.

‘Measly’

In the Dáil on Tuesday, Solidarity TD Mick Barry asked if the Taoiseach “honestly believes that a measly once-off bank holiday and a few other crumbs from the table will satisfy the demand of front-line workers for a Covid bonus”.

He called for a one-off Covid-19 wealth tax in the budget for high net worth individuals and corporations that did well during the pandemic, to pay workers’ bonuses and provide “proper compensation” for those who “risked their lives and their health”.

Mr Martin said the Ministers for Finance and for Public Expenditure and Reform were working on the recognition of front-line healthcare workers, to be brought to Cabinet and before the Dáil.