Thursday, 15 October 2020
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
This morning, the people of Cavan, Monaghan and my own county, Donegal, woke up to the news that level-4 restrictions would be introduced to stem the rising number of Covid-19 infections. I am aware of the great lengths people have gone to in recent weeks since the additional restrictions were imposed on those counties. People have made sacrifices to protect themselves, their families and the wider community. There is no doubt it has been difficult for people but I believe we can get through this together. In Donegal, we have seen that the numbers will start to reduce over the coming days. This provides us with a wee glimmer of hope but it is far too early to suggest this is in any way a trend. What we all need to do now is dig deeper, work together, follow the public health advice and get the better of this virus.
I am aware the restrictions imposed on households will cause alarm for many people. We need to remind people that there are exemptions on compassionate grounds.
While it is clear that we do not want anybody breaching these restrictions, common sense must prevail. I am mindful that there are people across the State, young and old alike, who feel isolated and alone, who are very vulnerable, and they should not suffer that. No one should be left isolated or cut-off from his or her communities. This needs to be clear. Further guidance on the compassionate grounds would be welcome. Caithfidh an Rialtas cinntiú go dtabharfar tacaíocht do na daoine sin.
The impact on incomes for workers and families also needs to be considered as level 4 restrictions are severe. Ten days ago, the Minister for Finance said that the impact of these restrictions would result in hundreds of thousands of job losses. That is, unfortunately, the reality. The public health restrictions create huge difficulties for our people. We can get through this, but only if the support is in place to help people through it. On 17 September, the Government cut the pandemic unemployment payment, removing vital income support at a time when it was most needed. On Tuesday, the Government confirmed its commitment to make these cuts permanent, to reduce income support at a time of heightened restrictions and of income loss. That was a mistake. Thousands of workers in the three counties that have entered level 4 restrictions will lose their jobs this week. They will fall back on income supports that have been cut, but they still have to pay rent and to pay mortgages to the banks. They still have to cover the cost of childcare and to put bread on the table for their families. For them, this is a time of worry, stress and anxiety and they need support.
While we hope this does not come to pass, there is a possibility that other counties may enter level 4 restrictions in the time ahead with further job losses inevitable as a result. Sinn Féin warned last month that cuts to the pandemic unemployment payment were premature and short-sighted. Last night's announcement by Government is proof of that. We know that the average person in receipt of the upper limit of the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, of €300 per week had a pre-Covid income of well above €500 per week. Level 4 restrictions will result in significant income loss. Government is determined to cut the PUP by another €50 at the end of January and again by €50 at the beginning of April.
The Tánaiste will know that the virus has not gone away and that it will, unfortunately, remain with us for a while. It will be with us at the end of January and in April. For as long as that is the case the threat to job losses remains. It is crucial that workers and families have certainty that their incomes will not fall off a cliff and that they will be supported. I am calling on the Government to change direction. I am asking that it put in place an adequate income support for those people who will lose their job and those who have lost their jobs as a result of this pandemic, not least in Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan. I am asking the Government to reverse the cuts to the pandemic unemployment payment and to bring the top level back to €350.