The idea of a bonus for people who worked on the frontline during the pandemic is fast becoming a contentious topic. The Government is not helping, with no clear message on what is intended or who should benefit. And all this is happening against a backdrop of Government borrowing which could approach €20 billion this year and budget sums for 2022 which leave precious little room for manoeuvre.
Few would argue against some recognition for those who worked on the frontline in the health service, even if how it is best delivered is open to discussion. The problem for the Government is that other groups are now saying they should also be included – and a confused ministerial response is being met with a generally opportunistic opposition, calling for various groups to be recognised.
Cost is obviously one issue here. The initial proposal for 10 days’ extra leave could cost up to €1 billion and while the price of a final plan may be less than this, it will still be significant. The argument by Tánaiste Leo Varadkar that it is affordable in this year’s budget sums – as opposed to next year’s – because the deficit is coming in below target is not persuasive. Money spent always has a cost.
But there are also issues of fairness. How on earth does the Government adjudicate between different groups of its employees? How do you compare the risks taken by an A&E employee with, say, a bus driver or a member of the Garda? And awarding some kind of public sector bonus across the board is a ridiculous proposition at a time when the public finances face major challenges. Another bank holiday in, say, November, also seems a questionable idea. Estimates that it would boost tourism at that time of year cannot be seen as any way certain – and it would have costs elsewhere in the economy.
There is also the question of fairness between the public and private sector. Any bonus plan which focuses on the wider public sector is rewarding people in generally secure jobs, while many livelihoods in the private sector have been destroyed.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said he believes retail employees should be included, but it is not clear how this might be achieved. If this turns into some kind of public sector bonus it will be deeply divisive. If the Government is dressing up tax measures which were under consideration anyway as some kind of bonus, it really won’t amount to much.
Beyond some kind of recognition to those on the healthcare frontline, the pandemic bonus idea would be best forgotten. This looks unlikely now that the issue is running. And trade unions would surely be better to focus on longer-term issues for their members in areas such as pay and working conditions than on seeking a few extra euro on a once-off basis.