Thursday, 2 April 2020
Social Protection (Covid-19): Statements
Over the past number of weeks, the Government has introduced unprecedented measures. It introduced public health measures which are designed to flatten the curve and slow the spread of the disease to the greatest extent possible. Those measures, although necessary, have undoubtedly had a very significant and negative effect on our economy. Therefore, we have sought to lessen the economic impact through a number of actions. These include new and enhanced social protection payments for workers who, through no fault of their own, find themselves without an income; wage subsidy supports for employers to help them retain workers on their payroll, even as their trading income falls away; and financial supports, including loan guarantees, for businesses to help them cope with the impact of Covid-19 on their businesses and customers. We have also taken steps to protect people who may not be able to pay their rent or have difficulties keeping up with mortgage payments.
These steps are extraordinary and come with a high financial cost but these are extraordinary times. The budgetary costs and how we might have to pay for them in the future would be a cause of significant concern but they are little compared with the nightmare that some would be living through now if the necessary actions had not been taken to protect them. Our highest protection must be that of public life and human health, preventing the spread of the virus and working to mitigate its impact on the country. This is what we must do, what we have endeavoured to do and what we will continue to do. We passed two emergency laws in the past couple of weeks. I thank all Members of the Dáil for their co-operation in passing that legislation as we faced into such a crisis.
In terms of social protection, we started by introducing an enhanced illness benefit scheme through the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020. The measures were designed to ensure that a person who is diagnosed with Covid-19 or has had to self-isolate on medical grounds has immediate access to a higher level of support. This was introduced at a rate of €305 per week. It was subsequently increased to €350 per week. In addition, we increased the qualified adult rate from €134.70 to €147 to ensure that people with two adults in a family on a standard illness benefit would also receive the rate of €350. This rate of payment also applies to citizens who are unemployed due to the Covid-19 crisis. We achieved this by the introduction of the pandemic unemployment payment which is available to all Irish-resident workers, including the self-employed, who lose their employment income due to Covid-19. All jobseekers with an adult dependant, including those already in receipt of a jobseeker payment, also benefit from the increase in the rate of the qualified adult payment. We also eliminated waiting days for illness and jobseeker payments.
As businesses closed their doors in many areas of the economy and as workers were laid off, we all agreed it was important to find a mechanism that would enable employees to maintain their links with employers. We promptly introduced an employer refund scheme and emergency legislation to put in place an enhanced support known as the temporary wage subsidy scheme. This scheme, operated by the Revenue Commissioners, will see the Government contribute to eligible firms payroll costs by paying them a wage subsidy to be passed on to the employee on a temporary basis. This is about protecting, insofar as we can, thousands of jobs that were created and maintained in recent years.
When we emerge from the other side of this crisis, we hope that many employers will be able to start up from where they left off without the need to recruit new staff. From an employee perspective, they are provided with job security.
We have also taken other measures. This week we extended the fuel allowance season by four weeks to 9 May. This provides many welfare recipients, including those who may need to cocoon, with valuable support of €24.50 per week. It means that many thousands of pensioners and people with disabilities will have one less thing to worry about and they can remain safe and warm in their homes. We have also moved to a fortnightly rather than a weekly payment cycle. We have extended the period for which payments can be held at post offices to 90 days and agreed a temporary arrangement with An Post to enable nominated agents collect payments for welfare recipients where necessary.
All these measures are designed to support the people most vulnerable to the effects of this virus to stay at home and to stay safe. They will come at a significant cost to the Exchequer. They have been implemented at pace. They are not perfect and not without risk. Removing risk is impossible given the extraordinary scale of the challenge and the speed at which it materialised. Since the introduction of the pandemic payment, in just two weeks the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection has up to last Friday received and processed 389,000 claims for this payment alone. This is on top of the normal run of processing claims and payments that are made to pensioners, people with disabilities, other job seekers and one-parent families among others.
The Department has been required to develop and implement new systems to create new functions. Normally this would have taken months of coding and testing. It has also introduced new claim application and processing functions. It continues to provide ongoing communications to the public through print, broadcast and social media as well as through very busy helplines. It has reassigned thousands of staff to ensure that people's claims are processed as quickly and as accurately as possible.
The staff at the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection are not immune to the virus, in terms of self-isolation, sickness and bereavement. We have asked much of all of our civil servants and throughout our public service. They have responded to that task with an incredible sense of public duty. I take this opportunity to thank them for that.
As we can all understand, responding to a challenge of this scale is not easy. There have been difficulties, but not as significant as some may have expected. The Department's focus has been on paying people promptly and paying as many eligible people as possible to ensure the State can play its role in cushioning our citizens from the devastating impact of loss of employment. The various measures outlined were introduced to protect our people.
Together we face an extraordinary challenge. In these uncertain times, given the anxiety and stress people felt over the risk to their health and to their future economic outlook, I believe it was crucial that we did all we could to reassure citizens. We acted fast so as not to create a heightened sense of fear and unease in communities. We may not have got and we did not get everything perfect, but I believe much of what we did was good. We have shown again that this country can rise to significant challenges and that its people can and do support each other at a time of great need. In doing so we have laid a strong foundation from which to recover from this crisis.
The scale of the challenge ahead of us cannot be underestimated. We as legislators must be honest and acknowledge that it will not be easy. We will get through this if we take a whole-of-society approach. If we do not play our part, the virus will win and lives will be lost. Each person, each family in the country is making huge sacrifices. The normality we once knew may not be seen for several months. Today's live register figures are startling. Over 500,000 people are now unemployed or on some form of Covid-19 payment. This has numerous knock-on effects on people's lives and it is undoubtedly leaving many very worried about their finances. I welcome the extension to the fuel allowance, which is of great benefit to people right across the country who have found themselves cocooned. I know this was a great concern for many older constituents and it is a relief for them and one less thing to worry about. I welcome the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment and the speed at which it is being administered. The credit is due to the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, her Department and her wider staff. They have worked phenomenally. If I was to make a suggestion, it would be that perhaps they could take some prime time slots to explain to the various sectors as to how the payment will be done and whether it can be backdated. It is only a one-page document. Ingrid Miley's presentation on the "Six One" news the other night was very well put but not everybody will have heard it. If we could run different slots for different sectors, it might help the Department and cut down the number of telephone calls.
I have been in regular contact with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs to ensure childcare professionals, providers and parents have their services to return to once this over. I acknowledge the role of the Minister in supporting us in getting what was a very onerous task sorted this day last week. We got it sorted in such a way that if the providers sign up now, no parent will have to pay a fee. The staff will maintain their full salary and even part-time staff will be in receipt in the minimum of €350, as will managers. I echo the call of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, for childcare options for front-line workers to be secured. Common sense can be used here. We have thousands of childcare workers around the country who would be happy to help. Providers will know the parents who will need assistance so they assign their workers who want to help. It is important, too, that the HSE considers childcare arrangements and offers flexibility with shifts when drawing up rotas.
I offer my condolences and those of my constituents to the families of those who have died as a result of Covid-19. As other speakers mentioned, families are also encountering very difficult circumstances as they bury their loved ones during this time. I record my appreciation, thanks and support for healthcare workers, emergency workers, essential workers and indeed the patriots who are the citizens at home today, playing an equally important role. We should also acknowledge and respect the leadership and decision-making of the Government. Its empathy and understanding and the way in which it has delivered its views, thoughts and advices have ensured that those same advices are adhered to. That has resulted in the progress that we have seen to date by virtue of an increase of only 10% to 15% in the number of positive cases, rather than the 30% we had feared some weeks ago.
It is imperative in the eye of this crisis that the Government throws all the necessary resources possible at the public health service and the Departments of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and Business, Enterprise and Innovation. Today's live register is a sobering vista for us, telling us that this crisis far outweighs the impact of the banking crisis. The spend to date of €6.7 billion does not account for all that has been or is in the process of being spent. The Exchequer returns today show revenues are down 20%. These are only early indications of the task that is and will be at hand.
In response to the murmurings of the Minister, Deputy Madigan, I was quite surprised at a Minister serving at the behest of the President's right to appoint a Government, in the absence of the Dáil doing so, suggesting we should somehow be ashamed of our actions today.
Like the other Members present, I am here to represent the interests of those who give us the privilege of representing them. We are here at the bequest of the Business Committee, on which all Members are represented. It has laid out the schedule for the day. The duty of the Minister of State in question, as a representative of the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, was to respond to the queries, thoughts and worries of Deputies who are passing on the representations of their constituents. I hope there is no further commentary of that nature in the course of this debate or, indeed, this crisis. This Dáil does not have the level of transparency or accountability that Fianna Fáil would like it to have. As if the debacle of the constitutional crisis created by the Seanad election is not enough, the message relayed today to the Business Committee is a message to those with the capacity to prepare to chart a recovery and ensure continued and effective management of this public health crisis that they must work tooth and nail, utilising whatever communication process they can devise, in order to be in a position to elect a Taoiseach and put in place a stable Government that can make the necessary, right and proper decisions for the people who elected us.
On the fuel allowance, I welcome the fact that the Minister and the Government have acquiesced to many of the recommendations made by Fianna Fáil and others. I have recently received representations from my constituents on the fuel allowance. Many who receive it may not be able to buy briquettes. The new licensing laws associated with the harvesting of peat, initiated as a result of the decision of the High Court last September further to the statutory instruments produced by the Government last January, proved ineffective and it was necessary for the Government to prepare legislation to counteract that. As the Government failed to so do, it was necessary to apply to An Bord Pleanála for a licence for such work. In its wisdom, An Bord Pleanála decided to postpone a decision on that application until May. However, harvesting will be ineffectual at that time. The postponement threatens 800 jobs, which comes on top of the terrible live register figures published today. In addition, it may compromise the security of energy provision in the State at a time of crisis. It has the potential to close the power stations in Shannonbridge, Lanesborough and Edenderry far sooner than the end of the year. Can the emergency powers to which reference was made be used effectively in this situation, given its impact on the security of energy provision in a crisis? Is such power vested in the legislation that was recently passed? If it is not, that is another reason why there must be a functioning Government in place to bring forward legislation to respond to issues such as this which are arising in the course of the crisis. Rather than take a cheap pop at those of us who are here trying to get answers in a time when we do not have the level of transparency or accountability associated with a functioning Dáil, I hope that the Minister who responds on this issue will address this issue. Does the Minister with responsibility for this matter have the power to take action to address it? It was possible to sidestep certain legislation in respect of restaurants and takeaways, either through its being disregarded or the provision of emergency powers. I hope the Minister will respond to my simple question. It is one of many that Fianna Fáil will relay to the Government in writing in the hope that a response will be forthcoming. I hope that, as there is no opportunity for Deputies to table parliamentary questions as would be done in the normal course, the Government will respond to our questions in good faith.
I am sharing time with Deputy Carthy. I offer my condolences to the friends and families of all those who have unfortunately passed away due to the Covid-19 pandemic. My thoughts are with them all. It is a difficult time for many families that have had their lives turned upside down as a result of the health crisis we are experiencing. Many families are experiencing serious financial difficulties as a result of family members becoming unemployed or being put on the wage subsidy scheme. It is at times such as this the safety net of our social protection system is most needed.
I want to take this opportunity to thank all the essential frontline workers who are working throughout this crisis to keep us safe and to ensure other essential services can continue. That includes all of the staff in the Intreo offices across the State who have received and processed more than 389,000 applications for the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment, PUP. Well done to them and I thank each and every one of the members of staff in those offices.
People need clear answers to the many questions they have. Along with other Deputies, I am inundated with questions and it is critical that answers are given to these questions so they get the information they need quickly. Hopefully, today's sitting will give us an opportunity to get some of the answers we so desperately need.
On Tuesday, some 283,000 people received the PUP flat rate payment of €350. Many of these people had applied for this payment several weeks ago and had been living hand to mouth in the interim, while they waited on this critical payment to come. It was not backdated as people had expected. Will this payment be backdated and when can people expect to receive that payment? I also want to welcome the temporary wage subsidy scheme. However, in its current design, the scheme is flawed and requires immediate reform. Employers that sign up are required to pay their employees no more than 70% of their net weekly wages, which for many is less than the €350 they would receive from the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment. Anyone with a salary of less than €30,000 will receive less under the wage subsidy scheme than they would from the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment. For a full-time worker on the minimum wage, this subsidy will provide nearly €100 less than the PUP. The wage subsidy scheme needs to be reformed by ensuring that €350 is the minimum payment employees receive through the temporary wage subsidy scheme. Will the Minister immediately look at that scheme and reform it to ensure workers will receive a minimum payment of €350?
The PUP is a working age payment and it is therefore causing major difficulties for those outside the age eligibility criteria of 18 to 66. Many people under the age of 18 and over the age of 66, who are in employment, unfortunately have seen that employment cease and they are not eligible for the PUP. This includes young apprentices, who can start their apprenticeships from the age of 16, for example. It also includes many of those over the age of 66, who are experiencing serious financial difficulties because they cannot access this payment. Will the Minister commit to extending the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment support to certain people under the age of 18 who have lost full-time employment? Will the Minister look at the issue of those over the age of 66, many of whom, as I have pointed out, are experiencing serious financial hardship during this pandemic?
This crisis has caused major concern for many renters who have lost their jobs or are working reduced hours. I welcome the important changes that have been made to accessing the rent supplement to ensure people can pay their rents and keep roofs over their heads. Can the Minister outline the revised criteria for people to apply for rent supplement? I am aware that there was a 23-page application form, which has been reduced to an eight-page form. However, there also has been a change in the criteria. Can the Minister outline the changed criteria and can he forward to me the circular that was issued to Intreo offices which outlines those changes?
Once a child maintenance order is in place, rent supplement and other social welfare payments such as the one parent family payment are reduced, regardless of whether maintenance is paid. Maintenance is treated as income and calculated as means. Many parents are not receiving any maintenance due to non-custodial parents being made unemployed or their hours being reduced. One-parent families are among the most at risk of poverty. There must be a simple process for those whose maintenance is not being paid to ensure that social welfare payments can be increased. Providing evidence or proof of non-payments is time consuming and these people cannot afford to wait. What process is in place for people in these circumstances? Will the Minister commit to changing the process around the provision of evidence?
In recent days, Dublin Bus staff are among workers who have been forced to take annual leave. This is illegal as it contravenes the Organisation of Working Time Act which states that employers must give workers at least one month's notice if they are directing them to take leave and that any such move requires consultation with the workers or their union. It should take into account a worker's ability to gain necessary rest and recreation. Does the Minister believe that forcing workers to take annual leave is illegal? Will the Minister ensure that additional resources are put into the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, to quickly deal with such situations and where complaints are made?
In 2014, the bereavement grant, a one-off payment of €850, for families was abolished. We need to put in place such a payment for those who lose loved ones as a result of Covid-19, at a rate of around €1,500. I ask that the Minister would put in place such a payment to help people who are going through an horrific time, in order to ease the financial burden and other pressures.
I thank the staff in the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and in Revenue who are dealing with the unprecedented influx of applications for new schemes in difficult circumstances, and all our public servants working at this time. Those who have had reasons to claim for these new schemes, whether it is workers applying for the pandemic unemployment payment or businesses accessing the wage subsidy scheme, are going through a traumatic time. As well as concern for the well being of their families, which we all share, they are also concerned about whether their jobs will return, about how long the crisis will last and whether they can withstand the financial cost of the restrictions. These people are livid that the banks thought this week was appropriate to deduct exorbitant fees from their customers' accounts. This House should be clear that these charges should be stopped and that the money deducted this week be returned.
Everyone understands that the Government cannot address all their concerns, but they expect that the Government will recognised the contribution they have made to our society and the role they will play in any economic recovery that follows. In that context, I raise a cohort of workers who have been abandoned by the Government measures, namely those who work in this State, paying taxes and PRSI here, but who happen to live on the other side of the Border. That affects thousands of workers in my constituency. Almost every business in County Monaghan has two sets of workers, one able to draw down the pandemic unemployment supports and those living a few miles away who cannot. EU rules state that cross-border workers who are made partially or intermittently unemployed should be entitled to this support in their State of employment. Anyone who has lost his or her job as a result of the pandemic falls under that category. This is an emergency.
Exceptional measures are required and, therefore, I ask the Minister whether he will commit to reviewing that proviso to ensure that all workers who have contributed to this State's finances and who will be pivotal to the economic recovery we hope will follow, particularly in the Border region, are supported during this time.
When I spent time some years ago on Oileán Chléire, off the coast of west Cork, I saw a great summer thunderstorm sweeping in off the ocean. As it gobbled up Fastnet Rock the windows and doors across the island were pulled to and made secure and livestock huddled into what shelter they could find. Everybody prepared as best they could for the storm to make landfall. I get the same sense here today, as we await the surge. Our healthcare workers are the lighthouse keepers who are already feeling the brunt of that storm, with worse to come. Today we must offer them our gratitude and every last support the State can give them to help them weather this crisis.
Meanwhile, here on the island we must make the best preparations we can. I commend again the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection and her Department officials who have put together a sweeping range of measures. As the Minister acknowledged, they are not perfect but they are very good considering the timeframe in which they were constructed. The pandemic unemployment payment is providing some measure of comfort to people who have lost their jobs owing to the outbreak. Likewise, the temporary wage subsidy scheme is allowing businesses to retain employees in anticipation of better days ahead.
However, as is understandably the case with measures so quickly designed in reaction to an unprecedented crisis, there are gaps in provision and areas where people have fallen between the cracks. To give the Minister and her officials their due, they have in most cases reacted quickly to the shortcomings in the scheme and have given the concerns raised by Opposition spokespersons a fair hearing when we have been given the chance to have input. There remain areas of shortcoming within the scheme and cohorts whose needs still have to be met. I hope the Department will remain flexible in addressing those in need.
Like my colleague in Sinn Féin, I have had many representations from people who fall outside the range of the pandemic unemployment payment, such as apprentices under 18 years of age or older citizens who might be supplementing their pension provisions with part-time work. While I accept the principle of a working age payment and why age limits might apply, that is cold comfort to those who have been excluded, be they aged 17 or 70. I hope the Department can find a way to help these people in the weeks ahead.
Likewise, many in our communities may find it difficult to demonstrate a loss of income. They include mothers returning from periods of unpaid maternity leave or members of our arts communities who may work from project to project, commission to commission or gig to gig. There are workers on low-hour contracts who make the bulk of their income in overtime and now find themselves reduced to 70% of their minimum contracted hours under the temporary wage subsidy scheme. This represents a serious loss of income.
Others may continue to be employed but may wish to self-isolate or cocoon themselves. I have been contacted by people with underlying conditions which make them especially vulnerable to Covid-19, be that asthma, diabetes or heart conditions, or who are living with elderly or infirm relatives and are terrified of the consequences of contracting the virus. They must be supported in their decision to temporarily step out of the workforce. I welcome the extension of the Covid-19 payment to these citizens, but I note it is only payable for a two-week period. This should be extended in cases where the person in question can certify their vulnerability to the infection. I also strongly recommend that the Government provide certainty to people hoping to avail of this payment that their employers will allow them to take this leave and that their jobs will be there for them when they decide to come back.
In fact, there is a job of work to be done to protect all employees who are still at work at this time and to protect the State from spurious claims on the public purse. While the overwhelming response of people in Ireland to the outbreak of Covid-19 has been one of social solidarity, there will always be unscrupulous people who will spot an opportunity in a crisis. Like many others here, I have heard whispers about employers who have sought to introduce rationalisation measures during this period and have laid off higher-paid employees while retaining younger staff on the temporary wage subsidy scheme. I have also heard of companies which hope to leverage the 70% wage subsidy scheme to secure cheap labour while keeping their doors open for business. This is, I am sure, a tiny minority, but I urge the Minister to put in place structures that would allow employees to report any abuse of the provisions put in place during this period of uncertainty.
I must again emphasise, as I did two weeks ago in this Chamber, the needs of some of our more marginalised communities.
We are hearing reports of illness establishing a foothold in the Traveller community and in direct provision centres. We must begin to provide people in these settings the opportunity to self isolate effectively in order to stem the spread of the virus in what are often crowded settings. I would include our prison population and those in emergency accommodation in this cohort. It will be a measure of our society how well we look after our most vulnerable in this period. While we wait for the storm to come it may seem too early to begin to think about a time when the sky is clear again. Right now our citizens and front-line workers in particular are living day to day, hour to hour and coping to the best of their ability. I commend them. I am very proud of how we as a nation have risen to this challenge but there must also be a role for us as elected representatives to look beyond the surge to how we rebuild an economy and society after a sudden shock not seen in our lifetimes. Our Uachtarán has argued that the reaction to the Covid-19 crisis has made an unanswerable case for universal basic services and I agree with him. It has also shown the merits and possibilities of a universal basic income, something that the pandemic unemployment payment comes very close to modelling. In responding to this tsunami, listening to and following the best scientific evidence and the advice of experts, we have shown how we might act to combat that more slow but ultimately more devastating inundation of climate change and biodiversity collapse that poses a more deadly threat to this planet than even this pandemic.
If social protection is about the care of individuals in our society it must also be about the protection of our society as a whole. In a parliamentary democracy the work of parliament is paramount. The Dáil must sit. When my next door neighbour is asked to go to her job as a carer each day, when my former student turns up to work at a shop counter each day, can I, as a Teachta Dála really sit at home and identify myself as a non-essential worker? The Dáil must sit. I acknowledge that today's sitting carries a risk of spreading the virus, not just for the Deputies in the Chamber but the kitchen staff, the ushers and all the ancillary staff who stand behind the work of this Chamber. We are open to new ways of working but against the backdrop of extraordinary legislation passed in the last month, with parliamentary questions suspended, briefings for party spokespersons intermittent and dwindling, the need for parliamentary oversight and scrutiny has never been more acute. However it sits, however we use the new technologies available to us, the Dáil must sit. We have learnt that in times of crisis it is not the markets we turn to for help but each other. Mar a dúradh anseo cheana, ar deireadh thiar thall, is ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine.
On behalf of the Social Democrats I extend deepest sympathies to those who have lost their lives through Covid-19 and our endless thanks to those who continue to put themselves in the front line and in harm's way. It is often said that a crisis makes us focus on what is really important. This crisis has shown us that it is not full employment alone that we must crave. The focus must be on the nature of our work. It must be secure and pay appropriately. The crisis has shown us what work we cannot live without, waste collectors, cleaners, nurses and retail staff. It has not gone unnoticed that those we pay the least are those who have mattered most to society during this crisis. It has shown us that a health care system based on need rather than ability to pay is non-negotiable. It allowed politicians in this Chamber en masseto recognise that public good in our Constitution does in fact allow a rent freeze. It has proved that childcare is beyond unaffordable. Our childcare system is widely in need of reform. Our childcare workers, so highly trained but poorly paid, should be paid directly by the State. There is the old conservative trope that the problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people's money. This crisis has proved to us that unchecked capitalism cannot survive without State intervention and this is absolutely the time for us to begin the conversation of how we keep our newly acquired public healthcare, public childcare and a security of tenure that has been a lifeblood for so many families during this period of crisis. Health, housing and childcare, for so long the big three insoluble issues, have improved drastically in a very short space of time, proving that the political leadership which had been needed for so long was in fact lacking.
The job of those of us in this Chamber who view ourselves as progressive is to ensure these disaster measures, which have been introduced to preserve basic decency in many families throughout Ireland, are there when this disaster abates. We are still failing in some areas. This sitting gives us an opportunity to highlight some of the groups that are being left behind and some of the gaps that still exist in our social protection structures, notwithstanding the areas in which we have stepped up enormously in recent weeks. I would like to respond to the unfortunate comments made by a Minister a short period of time ago by saying I will accept no shame for representing my constituents when I am called to do so in this House.
I would like to ask a number of direct questions. The Minister might not have the answers to them today, but I would appreciate it if he could get the answers to them shortly. My first question relates to people whose fuel allowances are paid in two lump sums. How and when will they get their extra weeks? We should praise those who are staffing the helplines at present. Those helplines are inadequately staffed, however. Those who are looking to avail of them are finding themselves waiting all day for responses to their queries. I think we need to step up the helplines by improving staffing levels, while continuing to extend immense goodwill to those who are currently staffing them.
We have already heard about the plight of part-time employees under the age of 18 who have been let go. We need to afford some degree of this pandemic payment to such people, many of whom live in low-income households. They have been stepping up to provide an extra source of security, but that has now been removed. They were using this money to pay for extra data or for Netflix, which many people are relying on at present. Now that this income is gone, the burden will be felt in many households. People in precarious employment who had two part-time jobs, but have lost one of those jobs, have asked me to highlight the fact that they are ineligible for the pandemic payment. We need to step up and offer some degree of payment to people who have lost one of their incomes.
Another important issue that has been raised in recent days needs to be resolved. Pregnant women who have been let go because of Covid-19 and are within 16 weeks of their due date must apply for maternity benefit. Women are absolutely entitled to 26 weeks of maternity leave. There needs to be clarity about whether some women who are forced to start their maternity leave six weeks early will get just ten weeks of maternity leave after they give birth. They might get even less maternity leave if they give birth after their due date. Clarity is urgently needed in this regard.
This debate affords us an opportunity to give a voice to those who are voiceless at this time. Earlier this week, dozens of specialists across the fields of health systems, public health, social policy, law, human rights, migration and equality activism wrote to the Government to express concern that the State is continuing to require large numbers of people who are seeking international protection to live in shared bedrooms and to share sanitary and eating facilities within the direct provision system, thereby preventing many people in that system from socially distancing in accordance with Government advice. They want to avoid contracting Covid-19 and passing the virus to others. It is absolutely crucial that individuals living within direct provision are included within the Government's approach to safeguarding public health at this worrying time. I am reminded of the Minister for Health's comment a couple of weeks ago that a pandemic affords no opportunity for a double-tier health service. I would argue strongly that during a time of pandemic, we simply cannot continue with a system of incarceration.
We are already seeing conversations in some quarters about how we will pay in the long term for the impacts of Covid-19. Although our political climate has changed utterly, I fear that our future political leadership will not change. Austerity will potentially be on the cards once more, perhaps with another name. We will fight this every step of the way. As someone who was politicised by austerity, and who comes from an area of Dublin that was utterly decimated by it, I believe now is the time to start ensuring we never go back there. On several occasions over the last couple of weeks, I have heard people in senior positions argue in public commentary that hard decisions will have to be made in the future. It seems to me that "hard decisions" is a euphemism for what happened between 2011 and 2016, when "hard decisions" were cited as a reason for further punishing or devaluing the role played by lone parents in our society, for destroying the community development sector and for eroding public services. If such "hard decisions" are being referred to again, we will fight them every step of the way, as we should.
The ESRI's current quarterly economic commentary, which was published this week, contains some fairly stark predictions.
The predictions show that a 7% fall in GDP, a doubling of unemployment to 12.6% and a rise in the debt to GDP ratio of 4.3% are possible. There will be limits to the choices that we take next. We have already accepted, quite spectacularly, that our current social welfare rates were not good enough to live on. It will be hard to roll this back. It has been proven to us just how much Airbnb was affecting our housing stock. This proof cannot be unseen. After our experience of a single tier health service that works for us when we need it, we will not tolerate going back to the old regime of waiting lists for those who cannot pay. While it is true that our old policies had a cost - a low tax base, for example, has a cost and a two tier health service is expensive to run - it is clear that returning to our old spending levels may not be instantaneously possible.
Where does this leave us? A recession caused by a lockdown aside, we all agree that Sláintecare on speed or our new income supports that actually support people when they most need support, are not possible given our current tax base. One hard decision that might need to be made is that the tax cuts proposed just a short time ago by the three medium-sized parties, shamefully in my view, must be taken off the table. It is no longer acceptable to gamble with our public services and the State's ability to provide a safety net when we need it most. Alongside this, it is time for everyone to pay their fair share of tax. When it comes to corporation tax, this is a republic and the message simply has to get through that if a company arrives here to do business and it is working out well, we expect that business to contribute. Donning the green jersey in this case means a commitment to investing in our vital social infrastructure, which is needed by all political parties. Now that we have learned what is truly important and how quickly those elected to this House can respond, there is no going back.
I want to address entrenched educational inequalities that will be exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. There is a fear among many working in DEIS schools that the current system, where DEIS students are working from home, will entrench the inequality that already exists. The current public narrative is focused mainly on the digital divide. Broader divisions already existed. For many students, not only is there a digital divide when trying to study for the leaving certificate, but they do not even have a table at home on which to work. There is also an inequality with regard to peace and quiet in that many students cannot simply close the door and study for their leaving certificate. This needs to be factored into considerations of how we approach these difficult decisions about the leaving certificate. We need to develop a digital fund to provide supports for students. We need to help DEIS schools. There are other factors. Students undertaking the leaving certificate applied are being completely lost in this narrative. Their leaving certificate and education are as important as those of anybody else. I ask that these decisions and factors are taken into consideration urgently.
It is nice to see you again, a Cheann Comhairle. I am sure there has been a sense of the surreal among people for the past four weeks. That also applies to the proceedings today and with regard to what is happening to people's well-being and health. In a matter of weeks, hundreds of thousands of people have lost their jobs, incomes and livelihoods. The sense of insecurity we are experiencing has not been seen for generations. Today's figures make for sombre reading. Some 500,000 people are now on the live register, an increase of 13% since 1 January. That figure is incredible and I do not think anybody could have predicted the number of job losses in that period. Even more sombre are figures from the United States today where some 6.6 million people have filed for unemployment benefits in the past week. We are entering the vortex of an economic depression that the world has never seen. That is not being alarmist. It is probably what we are facing. A vast number of people will be affected by this pandemic. Job losses will be temporary for most.
We must be upfront with people. Some people will lose their jobs permanently. Many people are accessing social welfare for the first time in their working lives. As I indicated, hundreds of thousands of people accessed social welfare over the past couple of weeks, specifically those taking the Covid-19 payment, and we must commend the workers who processed all those claims in the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. They have done a fantastic job in an unprecedented and unbelievable environment.
I have a series of questions, although they may not come under the remit of the Minister in the Chamber. Will the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection consider a universal payment of €350 for all workers who have lost income in the past number of weeks? There are many anomalies with the Covid-19 payment, including those affecting people who are over 66, people working in the gig economy and students on work study visas who had not started before the relevant date. They do not get the €350 payment because they are out of the bracket. Is there a provision in the Department for a solidarity payment, perhaps, for people on disability or illness benefit in this period? Is there a special provision of rent allowance for people who are unable to meet their rent? Is there any provision for reward payments for front-line workers in the public health system?
My final points relate to the wage subsidy scheme and an anomaly therein. Anybody earning over €586 per week should get €410 in the wage subsidy scheme. They are currently only getting €350 and are therefore losing out with this anomaly. The information I have indicates this could be changed through a ministerial order. Would the Department consider it appropriate to change this anomaly in the wage subsidy scheme by ministerial order? It relates to people earning just over €580. Does it make sense?
I did not intend to return to this subject but I have no real alternative, given the comments of the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Josepha Madigan. I made the point earlier that democracy is more important in the middle of a national emergency than it is in normal times. Deputy Boyd Barrett gave examples from the World Health Organization to back up that point. Is it the case that a couple of hours before the Minister told those of us who insisted on today's sitting that we should be ashamed of ourselves there was a briefing for the press in the Department of Finance, attended by that Minister, where journalists had to submit their questions for reply in advance, where the journalists who were present were not allowed to submit questions at that time and where material was handed out by Department of Finance officials-----
That is not strictly relevant to our reasons for being here. We are speaking about the social protection elements of the Covid-19 arrangements. What goes on in press conferences has nothing to do with the business we are here to transact.
The business we are here to transact requires openness and transparency. I am concerned that if a press conference was held this morning with material handed out by officials and where no questions were allowed from journalists-----
With the greatest respect to the Deputy, we must transact our business in this Chamber around the areas of our responsibility. What transpires at press conferences is not our responsibility.
I conclude on the matter by saying the two issues go hand in hand. Whether it met remotely or there was a sitting in this Chamber, there had to be a session of the Dáil this week.
We must see an end to this type of approach. This must be open and transparent. I will go on with my points about social protection.
The drivers at Dublin Bus have been instructed to take a portion of their annual leave in the coming weeks. These drivers are front-line workers. Every day they drive people to essential workplaces, including taking health service staff to and from our hospitals. Their service has been rewarded with a kick in the teeth. Dublin Bus has asked them to use up ten days of their annual leave in the next ten weeks, a move which may very well be illegal. This is an important test case where the social protection of our people is concerned. In the great recession of 2008, employers and the Government attempted to place the burden of the crisis on the shoulders of working people from the get-go. That must not be allowed to happen this time. What is being attempted by Dublin Bus must be resisted and stopped, not only in the interests of the Dublin Bus workers but also in the interests of every working person in this country.
I raise the issue of unscrupulous employers who are cheating their workers on the matter of the wage subsidy scheme. I am aware of a construction company which employs workers on the site of one of the State's major multinational companies and is forcing its workers to take annual leave while the scheme is in operation. I am also aware of a major chain of coffee shops which is forcing its staff to do the same. I could give other examples. This is appearing on the radar of several Deputies here. It needs to be tackled.
I will conclude by raising the issue of the ban on making Covid-19 payments to workers under the age of 18. During the week, I spoke to the mother of a 16 year old. Her son worked as an apprentice at a joinery just outside Cork city. Before all this happened, he was earning €250 a week as an apprentice. He paid universal social charge out of his pay packet every week. At home, he gave money to his mother and assisted in paying the mortgage. In fact, the mortgage payments could only be made on that basis. He has now been laid off. Being under the age of 18, he cannot claim the Covid-19 payment. His mother, of course, cannot claim the children's allowance for him. Her son is being discriminated against on the grounds of his age. That is wrong. A worker is a worker, irrespective of age. The ban on making Covid-19 payments to workers aged under 18 should be ended.
The measure of support put in place by the Government to help Irish people get through the Covid-19 crisis is unparalleled in the history of the State. The speed with which these measures were introduced is to be applauded. The response has been one of gratitude and relief. There is a real awareness among Irish people that citizens of many other countries do not have governments that are quite as willing or quick to help them at this time.
However, when new measures are introduced there can never be a one-size-fits-all package. Anomalies are to be expected. There will always be those who, due to their unique circumstances, may not initially appear to meet the specific criteria. There are borderline cases. My office has received numerous queries on cases where the applicants have been refused assistance. The people involved are genuinely in need of financial support and desperately need to have their specific cases examined. I am aware of the huge volume of work taking place in departmental offices at this time. Staff are snowed under with work. I place on the record my appreciation and thanks to the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, which assists my office and other Members of this House on a daily basis with courtesy and co-operation.
I request that Department officials establish a group to examine all appeals for payments and deal with them expeditiously. We need a rapid appeals process to help identify genuine cases where applications may have fallen through the cracks.
The volume of applications for financial assistance over the past two weeks is unprecedented. It is inevitable that given this enormous volume of applications some people in genuine need of help may slip through the net. This cohort of people is deserving of our immediate attention and I am calling on the Department to respond to this need. I compliment the former Minister, Regina Doherty, and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection on the outstanding work they have done to help those in unexpected need at this time.
As health is also on today's agenda, I wish to raise my serious concern in respect of the delayed support by the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, and the Health Service Executive, HSE, to private nursing homes across Tipperary. One of the chinks in our response to Covid-19 is the delay in intervention to assist nursing homes. Nursing homes have the explosive potential to spread the virus. In other countries, nursing homes and similar residential settings have become the weakest link in the chain in efforts to stop the spread of Covid-19. We cannot allow this to happen in Ireland.
I have been contacted by the management of nursing homes in Tipperary who are extremely worried about their ability to contain and cope with this virus. Some nursing homes across the country have been badly hit by the virus. I am aware of the very serious threat that exists already within a number of nursing homes. I am personally aware of residential units where residents are ill and a large number of staff, including nurses, health care assistants, catering and housekeeping staff and the maintenance teams, are unable to report for work as they are self-isolating. To avoid closure of these facilities, it is imperative that the HSE steps in to provide nursing and support staff. Also, there is an alarming lack of personal protective equipment available to nursing homes. They must receive a guaranteed supply of personal protective equipment. Staff must be protected. This needs to be addressed urgently.
Nursing homes are the places many of the most vulnerable people in our communities call home. They cannot be allowed to become dangerous places to live or work. Every possible effort must be made to source additional staff for nursing homes to cover for those lost through illness. If this does not happen, staff will refuse to go to work. They will refuse to risk their health or the health of their families. If this were to happen, nursing homes would have no alternative but to close and the consequences of this for our elderly and vulnerable people is unimaginable.
I welcome the timely and significant measures that have been introduced by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to soften the financial blow of this crisis across the country. However, my role here this afternoon is to highlight a particular anomaly that has been mentioned previously. There is a cohort of people who appear to have been forgotten, namely, people over the age of 66 who had been working part-time or full-time and are now unemployed as a result of this crisis but are not entitled to the pandemic unemployment payment. For me, this is unacceptable for three reasons. First, we have been told that the pandemic unemployment payment is payable to all workers regardless of whether they are part-time or full-time, employed or self-employed but it appears that this particular cohort has been completely forgotten. Second, this group of workers is doing precisely as they have been told to do in that they have been advised and encouraged by the State to work into their late 60s to flatten the pension curve. However, at the first opportunity the State has turned its back on these people, leaving them at a disadvantage when they are most in need. Third, there are many reasons people would work into their late 60s but by far and away the dominant factor is that people need extra income. The denial of the pandemic unemployment payment to this cohort of workers is causing significant and unnecessary hardship across the country. I could speak about this issue for longer than the three minutes I have remaining but I do not need to do so because the case is so compelling it speaks for itself.
I would like the Minister to indicate that she will review and hopefully overturn this anomaly at her earliest convenience. The virus does not discriminate on grounds of age, nor should we.
I am glad to get the opportunity to talk about a few anomalies. I thank the Government for many of the measures it has brought in, but we need to trim up a few things to make it equal for people who are not being catered for.
Kerry, Killarney in particular, is basically a tourist county. Many seasonal workers who traditionally work from the start of March until the end of October are missing out on the Covid-19 payment. In recent days the Minister of State, Deputy Griffin, suggested that they were included, but I do not think they are included because the phone is reddened at home with people saying they are not being considered. If it were not for the coronavirus, they would be all working now. This is when they would be making their few bob to keep them going for the year. They are dependent on the work from March to October to keep them going. I am asking the Minister to see if she can do something for the people who have been left behind because it is just not fair.
As Deputy Berry said, there are people over the age of 66 who may be on a pension but for various reasons, including money they may have borrowed, still continue to work. At present they are getting a small payment of about €200. I am asking the Minister in these times to bring their payment up to €350. I am not asking for the €350 on top of their pension, but at least to bring it up €350 to give them some parity. The Government should do the best it can and operate as fair as it can.
We all, including the Minister, know that in the past 12 months farmers have been hitting very hard times with very low financial returns. It is worse than ever. I do not honestly know how they will continue. I know that some of them have applied for the Covid-19 payment. I do not know whether they will get it. I am depending on the Government to ensure they do. Pressure on health, including mental health, is a serious matter to which we must attend, but people can only take so much. The farmers have taken a lot over the past year and a half from the factories and with other things that have happened in their sector. Bad weather does not seem to manifest itself up here on the eastern side of the country at all. It has been pouring in the west of Ireland since last August until very recently. Farmers are depressed and very downtrodden at present. There are many poor farmers out there and I ask the Minister to look sympathetically on those who apply for the Covid-19 payment.
We are hearing that the banks are offering people a three-month holiday on loan payments. I am also hearing a worrying thing about the banks.
They want the interest before the crisis finishes or, at the latest, when people start paying back again. They are saying the principal can be paid back at the end but they are suggesting that the interest on the principal that is being forgone for three months will have to be paid up when people start paying back again. That will drive many people under and I am asking the Government to talk to these banks. It has a very sizeable share in Bank of Ireland and Allied Irish Banks. We lost so many companies and people between 2008 and 2012 and we cannot afford to lose any more.
There is another issue. The phone is reddened at home about it. It is students who have paid their rent up-front in universities and colleges around the country. I have no problem in the world in naming the campus in the University of Limerick. They are refusing to pay back the money that has been paid up-front to the end of May. It would be €1,000 or up to €1,500 in some cases. These universities are saving now on fuel, heating, lighting and refuse collection because there will be practically no students there. There may be a few from abroad, a very small number, who are staying there but aside from all that, these campuses should be giving back the rent to the parents and students involved. These people at home who are looking for the money back have no work. All they have now if they can get it is the €350 for each person who was working, and in many cases there was only one person working. It is very unfair and it is setting a very bad example when the national universities will not pay back this money. How can we expect private landlords, who are also in the frame and are not paying back, to behave? I am very sorry they are not because they are hurting honest, good-living, hard-working people who do not have a leprechaun behind them or a gold mine. They need their money back to give them a chance to start again next September or October, hoping that we start again. It is very unfair to hold on to money that is not being used. The Minister and Government have us told that anyone with a mortgage or loan will get a chance to pay it back. Those people, if they do have loans or mortgages, are going to get a chance and they will not have to pay until a certain time, until the economy starts rolling again. These parents and students need to get their money back as soon as possible.
We are in a time of crisis. We must all pull together. Something that I did not get to mention in respect of the testing is that we need a test place in Killarney. The old St. Finan's Hospital has a grand way in and a grand way out. A test centre could be set up there to cater for an area within a 25 mile radius, including Killarney, east Kerry and even into north-west Cork, as well as down to Kenmare and Sneem. Those people are very far away from Tralee and I am asking the Government to try to set up a centre there.
People are asking why it is taking so long to get tested. That is a worry. I had a couple waiting practically ten days before they were called. The other problem is that we are waiting too long for the test results to come back.
I am not giving out or scolding. Rather, I am asking the Government to do what it can do to ensure something positive happens in this regard.
The issue of nursing homes was raised. I have been contacted by nursing homes that are having difficulty maintaining staff numbers. They cannot recruit staff in the same manner as the HSE. I ask the Government to keep a watch on nursing homes and ensure that when the number of staff working in them at the coalface drops, assistance is provided. People are worried. It will fall back on patients in nursing homes if they are not properly looked after.
I welcome the efforts made to date and pay tribute to the staff of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection who are working on the ground. Year after year, we recognise at budget time that without the payments made by the Department and the significant work done by its staff on the ground, this country would be even more unequal. I welcome the Covid-19 payment, the wages subsidy and the extension of time in respect of the fuel allowance. However, we must take into account the context. Deputy Cowen referred to the stark live register figures that were published today. We have gone from having 4.85% unemployment - almost full employment - to an unemployment rate of 17%. Indeed, figures provided by the Government indicate that 800,000 people will avail of the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment or the wage subsidy scheme. That exposes the situation on the ground. As I have repeatedly stated in the House in recent weeks, I hope we now see what is possible and that we never go back. Perhaps now, more than ever, is the time to look at a basic income for everybody based on needs on the ground. We have shown what can be done in a few weeks. Let us see what we can do for the future because there is no going back to the unequal society we had.
I refer to anomalies that have arisen, some of which have been mentioned by my colleagues. The issue relating to persons aged more than 66 was raised and I will not belabour the point. Deputies are receiving constant representations on this issue. It seems somewhat hypocritical that we are appealing to our older people to do the right thing but they are being excluded from the scheme which is supposed to support everybody.
In regard to persons on reduced hours, I understand that if a person is on a three-day week, they may apply for the welfare payment. However, that works out at €40 per day, whereas the Covid-19 payment is €70 per day. Those workers are getting less than they ought to be.
Deputy Pringle was anxious for me to mention the North-South issue, but I will not belabour the point as it was already raised.
On the 30,000 people who have been refused the Covid-19 payment, approximately 15,000 were refused because they gave the wrong information but the other 15,000 were simply refused for one reason or another. There is no appeal mechanism. I understand from reading the notes that no appeal is allowed because it is an emergency. I ask the Minister to look at that because, obviously, mistakes are made when things are rushed.
On nurses, other Members have pointed out that there is no assistance for student nurses.
On redundancy, I was here when the legislation passed last week and it applies to a specific time. Representations have been made to me on behalf of a person who was made redundant on 13 March, before those provisions came into effect. The person is unemployed and cannot get work. He or she is caught in no-man's land and cannot avail of mortgage relief from the banks. I wish to draw the attention of the Minister to that point.
Rent supplement is now administered by local authorities rather than by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. It is subject to ongoing reviews in respect of what constitutes a reasonable rent, whereas the housing assistance payment, HAP, which is also administered by local authorities, is not subject to review.
I understand no review has been done on that since 2016. While the social welfare system was doing a good job in keeping the rent supplement under the review, that is not happening.
I refer to the comments of the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Madigan, that we should be ashamed of ourselves for taking her and other people out of their homes. I will make no apology. I find her comments embarrassing. They fail to grasp the necessity of democratic institutions functioning. We heard the unprecedented comments from the Chief Justice today on the importance of democratic institutions functioning as best they can, however restricted, in a time of emergency. We have passed two draconian Bills, mixed up with some good stuff. There is a need for the Dáil to sit. I hope the Ceann Comhairle will use his leadership skills to facilitate that in whatever way necessary in an open and public forum.
I endorse the words of Deputy Connolly. I agree with her that it is important the Dáil sits. Some important points were made here today and some important questions were asked. Deputy O'Reilly asked an important question about the front-line workers in our health service and about the welcome news that private consultants and private hospitals will be working in the public sector. There is an issue, which was reported in the media over the weekend, that they are being given a different contract. In fairness to the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, he seemed to be about to answer that question before he had to leave and I completely accept that he had to leave for good reasons. This question needs to be answered, however. Are the private consultants, who are now working in private hospitals on public contracts, getting the old contract? If they are, that would be worrying because it is those doctors and nurses who are working in our public hospitals who will primarily be dealing with people with Covid-19 because it is in our public hospitals that we have ventilators and ICU beds. Therefore, doctors and nurses in public hospitals are more likely to come in contact with the virus and to bring it home to their loved ones. If they are on a different contract, and I am not saying they are, that would be shameful, to paraphrase the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Madigan. It is legitimate to ask these questions because that is what we are here to do.
We have done well as country, and the Government, of which the Minister is a member, has done very well in dealing with this. We have done well as a nation in following the medical advice of the Chief Medical Officer. Like the rest of the House, I wish him the best with his recovery. However, we are uniquely vulnerable in this country. We hear about the vulnerabilities and the death rates being much higher in Spain and Italy than in other countries. There are a variety of reasons why we have a particular vulnerability. The number of ICU beds per 100,000 people in Germany is 34 and in France it is 16. That may go some way towards explaining why their death rates are so much lower because in Spain the number of ICU beds per 100,000 people is 9.7 and in Italy it is 8.6. In Ireland, we have five ICU beds per 100,000 people so we are uniquely vulnerable, we need to take care and I urge everybody to follow the advice of the Chief Medical Officer, as has been well conveyed by the Taoiseach and the Minister for Health.
I want to return to two particular groups within the social welfare system. One of the reasons we have fewer ICU beds in Ireland is because of political choices. I supported a Government that did not invest much in health. The Government said at the time that we did not have the money to invest in health but in any event we need a functioning economy when we come out of this. One of the sectors that will hopefully contribute to that revival is the tourism sector. A lot of people will not be going on holidays abroad but hopefully we will be in a position where people can holiday at home and spend money here. We have a tourist sector in this country but many of the people who work in it are seasonal workers. Tourist enterprises across the country would now be taking on staff and opening at a low key level or getting ready to open. However, they cannot do that now because they do not know when they will open and they cannot take on the staff under the Covid-19 measures because they will not get the money from the Government for staff who were not employed on 29 February. The staff will not get the money because they were not in employment on 29 February. That is a lacuna or loophole which I pointed out to the Minister for Finance before in this Chamber and I hope it will be addressed because we need a functioning tourist sector in this country when we go back to a normal.
I worry that all business, such as it is, is being funnelled into multinationals such as Lidl, Aldi and Tesco. Garden centres are closed yet people are gardening more than ever. Where does one get the equipment or buy seeds? There is no alternative but to get it in Tesco or Lidl because the local garden centre is closed. Farmers markets, where people can buy produce which has passed through far fewer hands than food on a shelf in a large supermarket chain, are closed. Small shops are closing because people are going for one big shop. This will inevitably have a huge economic consequence but we should not increase the economic consequence by virtue of our measures. We must be very careful in what we do. We need to show that we are all in this together.
I am quite worried that a senior civil servant has ventured into constitutional matters and conveyed the Attorney General's advice when there are other advices on whether the Seanad can form. I am more worried when a senior civil servant suggests that he and the permanent government should not be answerable to the people. He works on behalf of the people. We are ridiculed and maybe we are ridiculous at times, but I take seriously my position as a representative of the people and I come here to convey their concerns to the Minister so that she may bring them back to the permanent government. That is important.
I thank all the Deputies who contributed. I acknowledge again the co-operation and support of all sides of the House during this time of national crisis. Deputies have asked specific questions on various schemes. Due to time constraints, I cannot address them individually. Ms Orlaith Mannion has agreed that the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection will provide Members with written answers to clarify some of the issues raised.
It is important to acknowledge where we stand. The live register figures released earlier highlight starkly the changed economic landscape. A month ago, we had full employment with more people at work than ever before. Sadly, today's figures show that more than 500,000 people are now in receipt of some form of income support. This is unprecedented and for the many businesses and workers impacted, and their families, this is an extremely difficult and worrying time.
The Government’s focus has been on responding quickly and decisively to the challenges of Covid-19. First, we put in place the public health measures necessary to slow the spread of the disease and, second, we put in place the social welfare and economic policies necessary to mitigate the impact of the virus on the well-being of citizens. Have we got everything right or designed the perfect solutions to the welfare and economic challenges? No, we have not, nor, given the pace at which we had to respond, could anybody be expected to. Officials from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection have provided briefing sessions for Members on the new measures. The Department will continue to work with Members to provide answers to the issues raised and seek to provide solutions, where possible. However, we must be realistic. In a time of unprecedented crisis, not every problem can be sorted out and not every anomaly can be resolved. The perfect cannot be allowed to get in the way of the good. Nevertheless we are open to making whatever improvements we can. As a Government, we will seek to take on board the comments and suggestions made by Deputies.
Some Deputies have constituents who applied for but did not get the Covid emergency payment on Tuesday. I assure them that the Department is working with people who have legitimately applied but where an error may have been made, for example, in a bank IBAN.
I reiterate that the quickest and easiest way to apply for the Covid unemployment payment is online at mywelfare.ie.It is also important to point out that 88% of claims received were put into payment.
That is 283,000 people. I want to acknowledge the staff of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection in local offices across the country, as well as those who have been redeployed from elsewhere in the public service, who have worked night and day to clear the equivalent of a 19-month claim load in two weeks. This is unprecedented and an enormous challenge, but the work is being done. We must remember that those staff have families and loved ones, but they are working tirelessly to make sure that people are receiving the payments they are due. In my mind, that is what public service is about.
The 283,000 people in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment were working up to a week or so ago. They were looking forward to St. Patrick's day, mother's day, Easter, holidays and all sorts of normal activities. Now, like almost every facet of Irish life, their world has been turned upside down. The income supports we introduced and enhanced are, first and foremost, intended to alleviate the financial hardship they now face. As many economic commentators have observed, these payments will also play an important role in sustaining incomes and positioning the economy for what we hope will be a fast recovery.
I encourage employers to avail of the temporary wage subsidy scheme. As of this morning, more than 36,000 businesses had registered for the wage subsidy scheme, with more than €54 million in payments already issued to employers. The scheme is vital to maintain the link between employer and employee so that we can be ready, when we come out the other side of this, which we will, to reboot businesses as soon as possible so that people can get back to work as quickly as possible.
I encourage any business to engage with Revenue before it lets go staff and to consider the option of the wage subsidy scheme. It is important to point out that even if an employee has been laid off because of Covid-19 it is not too late. Employers can rehire an employee, provided he or she was on the payroll in February, and avail of the temporary wage subsidy scheme.
Finally, I would like to thank all sides of the House for allowing the passage of two very important pieces of emergency legislation in the past fortnight. I have no doubt we will continue to work together in the national interest in what are going to be difficult days and weeks ahead.