Thursday, 29 April 2021
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
I thank the Deputy. There will be a formal announcement by the Taoiseach later today on the reopening of hotels, all the services associated with them and the hospitality industry more broadly, including pubs and restaurants. It relates to outdoor activities.
I fully agree that we need a plan for aviation and a return to international travel. Airports have received very large amounts of grant funding from the Government in recent weeks and months. Airlines have been among the biggest beneficiaries under the employment wage subsidy scheme. Hundreds of millions of euro have already gone to the aviation sector during this pandemic but what it wants and needs is to get back to business and resume flying, not grants from the Government. However, it is just too soon for the return to international travel, unfortunately. The pandemic is raging around the world; it is worse than it ever was. The number of daily cases around the world is at a record high and we cannot escape that reality. The truth is that, in a few months, the world will essentially be divided into three parts: those areas whose populations are heavily vaccinated, namely, Europe, including the UK, and Israel, some Gulf states and the US; countries whose populations are not fully vaccinated, including Brazil, India, Russia, most of Africa and South America; and countries that have adopted an elimination strategy whereby they are safe but closed off, with populations that are not vaccinated and will not be for at least another year. Travel between those groups of countries will be very difficult. We may be able to allow international travel among countries whose populations are substantially vaccinated but we are not there yet. Only Israel is in that position. It is reopening to tourism on 26 May. It will be many months before we will be at that point. We need to think ahead and plan for it, however, and that is what we intend do over the course of May.
On the question on whether the maternity benefit rate is too low, I believe it is. We set the pandemic unemployment payment and the enhanced illness benefit payment rates at €350 per week because that is 70% of average earnings in the sectors most affected, namely construction, retail and hospitality. The payment is income linked, based on how much a recipient earned before receiving it. I have often said I would like to see a reform of our welfare system so benefits such as illness benefit, maternity benefit and jobseeker's benefit are income linked. We should do that. A lot of people would oppose that but we should do it. Let us not forget, however, that all of these benefits are paid for through the Social Insurance Fund, which is now back in deficit. If we make these enhancements, we need to have a serious conversation about PRSI and whether employees and employers are willing to pay more for higher benefits. I believe that the more one pays in, the more one should get out, but that means moving to a different system. I am up for discussing it but there is too much talk about free money in this House.