Thursday, 23 April 2020
Irish Economy: Statements
The economic commentary relating to Covid-19 can at best be described as depressing. There is no doubt that we, as a country and a people, are facing a monumental task in getting our economy, society and lives back again once we have pulled through the worst of this health emergency. We must also be conscious of the fact that, if we talk down confidence, we will further undermine our ability to recover and build new communities that are fairer for all. Even with dire economic warnings, we must provide hope. Hope has a powerful role to play during times of great uncertainty. We need a plan that gives hope to employers and workers, the self-employed and farmers, families, and old and young people. We need to make it clear that, whatever decision is made on lifting restrictions on 5 May, it will be taken not just on public health advice, but also on the basis of mental health and wellness and economic advice. We need to open our country, but we must do so responsibly.
As a first step, the Government should list specific businesses that can open under certain conditions. We must go further, though, and allow people to act in a responsible and mature manner themselves, that is, allowing those who can demonstrate social distancing to return to work. There are many who do not fall neatly into any category but who pose minimal risk because they, for example, work alone. There are other jobs where several employees can easily comply with social distancing rules. However, this should be conditional on them placing a yellow notice on public access points to their workplaces or businesses outlining exactly how they are complying with those rules. On that notice, they should also provide the public with a contact number to register a breach or complaint with, for example, a local authority, the Health and Safety Authority or a combination of State agencies. After such heroic efforts by every citizen in the State to stop the spread of the virus, we cannot allow a second wave of infection under any circumstance. If people breach the rules, they should be shut down immediately and face a stiff fine.
The Government must take on a leadership role and state that people returning to work or those meeting others outside of their families should cover their mouths and noses from this point on. I am referring to face coverings, not medical face masks, which we all acknowledge are in short supply.
We are conscious of the fact that it will not simply be a case of business as usual from next month and that we will have to find new ways of doing things. Social distancing will present challenges that are unique to each industry, profession and business. Now is the time for those people to start planning how they will be able to reopen safely when the time comes and what will become the new normal. Businesses and employers must, now rather than on 5 May, start considering their strategies for reopening. For example, Supermac's has already decided to reopen some of its restaurants where social distancing can be safely observed. Others must follow suit.
Rebuilding our economy must be done through a Covid-19 recovery plan, one that will take up to 1 million individuals off the unemployment register and into a new economy that works for our people rather than just works our people. The Finnish Government has put it well by calling it an economy of well-being. In such an economy, public resources are allocated for improving people's well-being. "Well-being" means that people are healthier and more innovative and productive, and they work and pay taxes.
We have a golden opportunity to reinvent our economy but we need a new decision maker and a new decision-making process to make this happen. The public needs leadership and this can only be provided by a stable Government with a clear mandate. This needs to happen quickly.
While the caretaker Government, working with public health officials, has brought us to this stage in the management of the Covid-19 pandemic, to progress to recovery mode and provide certainty for the people, the eight Regional Group Independent Deputies believe it is now imperative that we move from talking about Government formation to real and substantive talks on an actual programme for Government. In tandem with a new Government, I suggest that as part of the programme for Government we establish an independent Covid-19 recovery squad, made up of four innovative and experienced Irish men and women. These would be people who have stepped back from their roles as business people, entrepreneurs, financiers and academics, who want to give something back to our Republic that would last for generations to come. They would take a day or two a week to look at the merits of proposals that come not only through traditional policy avenues but from business people, innovators and our citizens. They would have a different perspective on providing solutions to age-old problems. As Deputies, we already receive innovative suggestions, such as, in the past, the Gathering in 2013. We now need a new way to assess these and a new way to look at and tackle the problems. The Covid-19 recovery squad could look at a proposal or solution, or put forward a call for solutions to a problem, and give their views directly to the Government.
The current end-of-term Government does not have the luxury of sitting back and waiting for a new Administration. It must, in the short term, act decisively. An immediate step must be to minimise the need for people physically to return to work by setting out key practical measures to support a national remote working strategy. There are huge opportunities for Ireland to become a global leader in remote working, which would attract new foreign direct investment to all regions and even to our villages. This could offer a real opportunity to deliver jobs for rural Ireland and breathe new life into our rural communities. The Government must set a target of transitioning to a post-Covid-19 economy where remote working makes up 30% of the workforce by 2030 in our public and private sectors, including IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland supported companies. The question has been answered for companies as to whether remote working can be done. The challenge now is to sustain it and ensure it is managed so that productivity and employee engagement is positive. This will start today with the Government delivering clear guidelines for employers and employees on remote working and simplifying the process of establishing remote working employment. A new approach must provide meaningful tax incentives for employees and employers. The feedback I have received on Revenue's e-working allowance is that it is unwieldy to apply for. This must be streamlined with immediate effect. We must look at the value of this incentive. In the example on Revenue's website, where an employee works from home for 90 days, the total amount claimable, if that person were to do so directly, amounts to €43. This will not incentivise the type of change that is now urgently needed.
While on the issue of regional job spread, we have to do our utmost to protect the jobs we already have in regional Ireland in agriculture, farming and tourism and in Bord na Móna and the ESB in midland counties. These sectors cannot wait for a new Government. We need to see action now to protect our family farms and our workers, some of whom need to be provided with alternative decent work options. We need directions from the Government now and not next year.
There is a long road ahead of us to recover from the effects of Covid-19. This is something we can do together as a nation.
We have tackled many problems in the past and with the right approach we can do so again. We need to encourage innovative solutions and find new ways to incorporate them into Government policy development. If we do this right, we can have a practical and profound effect on the future of our nation, the economy, the people and the generations to come. There is no doubt the road to recovery will be a long one. It is critical that we start to plan now for an Ireland living with, and an Ireland living after, Covid-19.