Tuesday, 12 July 2022
Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
Health Services Staff
81. To ask the Minister for Health the status of the pandemic bonus payment and special leave with pay for frontline healthcare workers with long-Covid; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37351/22]
The first question is to afford the Minister for Health an opportunity to outline the status of the pandemic bonus payment, how the payment of the bonus is progressing for all healthcare workers who are entitled to it and to outline the status of the special leave with pay for front-line healthcare workers with long Covid and, more importantly, what long-term payment will be put in place.
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. As of last Friday, approximately 90,000 eligible HSE and section 38 staff have received the Covid-19 pandemic recognition payment. We estimate that is approximately nine in every ten people who are eligible for the payment, as public sector healthcare or section 38 staff. This payment recognises the extraordinary contribution and efforts made during the pandemic by our healthcare workers.
Roll-out of the payment continues to be prioritised across all services, and should be completed within the coming weeks.
Officials are working to ensure payments to eligible non-HSE, non-section 38 employees are rolled out. This will take time for several reasons, as I am sure the Deputy appreciates. One such reason is these employees are not normally paid by the public health service. Another is that we must avoid duplicate payments. For example, we may have somebody who is working as a healthcare professional in one of our hospitals and who has been paid but who also works for another organisation. We want to avoid that duplication. As I am sure the Deputy will appreciate, there are very many organisations to be covered in this wider group. I very am keen that all efforts are made to pay these eligible staff as quickly as possible. To clarify, the comment about the "coming weeks" is with regard to the HSE and the section 38 staff. There are other staff there who it will take a bit more time to pay but I have no doubt if we were making payments in ways that were not verified, the Deputy would quite rightly be raising the question of the proper allocation of public resources.
I am happy to come back on the second issue the Deputy raised in the next round.
I am fair-minded when I come at this because I understand we must ensure we get it right and the payment is made appropriately but I think the Minister would also accept this was a concept first mooted 18 months ago. The Government started the year announcing the payment yet six months later, here we are with many workers still not having received it. I am referring to section 39 workers, contract workers and workers working in private nursing homes. In fact, I do not know if some of the lowest-paid workers, including cleaners, security staff and catering staff are being paid but we are being inundated all the time on the status of that, as I am sure Government public representatives are too.
When the Minister comes back on the second round he might be able to outline to us why it is the case the special leave with pay payment, that was changed on foot of an instruction from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to now only cover the period of isolation when a front-line healthcare worker is out with Covid, no longer includes long Covid. When will the Minister put in place a permanent solution to that?
I thank the Deputy. The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform introduced the temporary special leave with pay scheme for Covid at the start of the pandemic. It was there to assist in preventing Covid spread in workplaces. Since 1 July this pay continues to cover Covid-related illnesses for the duration of the self-isolation period. Any period of illness extending beyond the isolation period is treated as ordinary sick leave. A special scheme specific to the health sector is merited in recognition of the requirement on staff to work on site through the most challenging phases of the pandemic and where they were clinically exposed or in a clinically-exposed Covid-19 environment. There are ongoing discussions between the representative unions and the Departments of Health and Public Expenditure and Reform. My understanding is, and I want to acknowledge, that not everything that has been asked for has been included. However, critically, what was sought first and foremost was an extension to the scheme and it has now been extended for a full year.
The Minister will be aware that when he attended a conference organised by the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, he made a clear commitment there would be no cliff edge and that the payment would not simply end without an alternative in place. That is precisely what happened. I was in contact with the INMO today to find out whether there were any changes to the special leave with pay payment for front-line workers with Covid. There have not been, so at the moment there is no support. Of course the Minister can talk about the merit of a scheme but we have similar schemes in place for, for example, front-line workers who contract MRSA, or in the past contracted TB, or blood-spread illnesses and a whole range of different risks front-line workers must take when they go into work. Covid is an occupational hazard and there is obviously an additional risk for those on the front-line, so it is not good enough that cliff edge has come and workers with long Covid have gone over it and are now entitled to no payment because the Minister simply did not extend that option to them.
I thank the Deputy. The first ask made was that the scheme be extended and it was something I committed to advocating for. It is not a Department of Health scheme but it is something I committed to and we have secured an extension for a year, and that is very welcome. Any employee who is eligible for the payment receives his or her full rate of basic pay. Such employees receive the fixed allowance and, if eligible, they receive-----
-----premium payments as well. The Deputy has raised various issues on which I am in conversations with the Department of Health and on which the officials are talking to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. I again acknowledge that not everything the representative bodies have sought is included. There is an ongoing conversation but critically, what was important was we got the scheme extended and that has been secured.