Coronavirus may require new legislation to protect workers’ rights, Varadkar says

Taoiseach reveals a Cabinet subcommittee has been established to address outbreak

The Dáil may have to legislate to ensure employees’ rights are maintained if workers are asked to self-isolate to deal with Covid-19, the Taoiseach has said.

Leo Varadkar told the House on Thursday that a Cabinet subcommittee established this week, and which meets for the first time next Monday, will make a decision on whether this is necessary.

“We have very strong legislation around public health and don’t believe at this stage that it needs to be enhanced,” he said.

However, he said they “may need to enhance legislation around employment and social protections so that people are not disincentivised to self-isolate if they are asked to do so”.


He also said that all necessary resources will be provided to the HSE over and above its budget “to take whatever actions are necessary to contain Covid-19 in Ireland”. The health service has been given the “green light” to use additional staff and financial resources as needed, “so that we are able to contain Covid-19 for as long as we can”.

Rejecting calls for the establishment of a special Dáil committee to deal with the crisis, he said senior health officials at the frontline dealing with the coronavirus were working flat out and did not need extra demands to account for their work.

Mr Varadkar was speaking as the House sat for the second time since the general election when it discussed the coronavirus outbreak and EU issues. The Taoiseach reminded the House that constitutionally the Government had “full executive authority” but the Opposition would be consulted.

He said there will be a weekly briefing for all TDs and their staff to help with constituency queries.

A stakeholder group has been established to inform employers, unions, civil society and others in advance of decisions being announced and it has already met.

Income support

Minister for Health Simon Harris said proposals for income support for those who needed to self-isolate would require “flexibility and responsiveness by employers and in Government social protection schemes”.

He confirmed an extra 20 intensive care unit beds are available with plans for more. Mr Harris will meet patient advocacy groups on Friday.

Minister of State for European Affairs Helen McEntee said “we can only offer advice to our own citizens” when questions were raised about Italians travelling to Dublin this weekend even though the rugby international had been cancelled.

Minister for Education Joe McHugh said all schools had been provided with appropriate information and “there is no need for any school to close unless advised by the HSE”.

People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith believed that the HSE was downplaying the lack of capacity to deal with the crisis.

Fianna Fáil health spokesman Stephen Donnelly said “in some cases we are erring too much on withholding information” and he said businesses were not getting necessary information from the Department of Enterprise.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said the fight against coronavirus must be an all-island one. Both administrations must be “on their game” in coordinating resources and communications.

She called for protection of workers particularly those in part-time and insecure positions who should feel confident in self-reporting.

Labour’s Seán Sherlock said workers who had to self-isolate should receive sick pay benefit from day one and not from day four as current rules state.

Green party TD Roderic O’Gorman said “clear and unsanitised information should be given to citizens” and he highlighted concerns about the vulnerability of those who are homeless, in direct provision or in prison.

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran is Parliamentary Correspondent of The Irish Times