€260m-a-week bill as the lockdown intensifies
1,276 new cases confirmed and eight more deaths Mix of Levels 4 and 5 expected to be introduced this week
THE State could face a bill of at least €260m a week to support closed businesses and laid-off workers when Covid restrictions are increased in the coming days.
The Government is expected to escalate its response to the Covid-19 surge and introduce a mix of Level 4 and 5 restrictions this week.
Three Coalition party leaders and senior ministers met last night to discuss chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan’s recommendation to move the country to Level 5 measures for six weeks, amid strong resistance from some Cabinet members to a fresh lockdown.
Senior coalition figures were told yesterday of the huge societal costs of Level 5 including 120,000 people being laid off and businesses being unable to recover from being closed for an extended period for the second time this year.
There was no major announcement from Government last night and further meetings are expected on Monday.
Government sources last night said several issues need to be resolved first, relating to employment supports and a more up-to-date definition of essential services, with one source describing it as being
“too simple” to state the intention was to impose either a Level 4 or Level 5 lockdown.
“There are overlaps between both levels,” they said.
Last night there were 1,276 new Covid cases confirmed and eight more deaths.
At Level 4, people would be allowed to travel within their own county, and pubs, cafes and restaurants could remain open for outdoor dining.
But these amenities would only be allowed to offer takeaway and delivery at Level 5, where people would also be advised to stay at home and travel no further than 5km. There has been discussion among ministers on whether the 5km rule could be part of a Level 4 Plus regime.
Issues being examined include updating the definitions of a ‘designated worker’ and ‘essential services’ to include construction workers who are not deemed essential under Level 5. Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien is understood to have advised the construction sector that it is an essential service in Levels 4 and 5.
Other issues include measures that seek to tackle house parties. The Government has no plans to close schools, a senior source said last night.
The Pandemic Unemployment Payment would cost €100m per week under Level 4 and €160m under Level 5.
THE Government is expected to escalate its response to the Covid-19 surge and introduce a mix of Level 4 and 5 this week. But there was no major announcement from the coalition last night after a meeting of the party leaders and senior ministers concluded any decisions are not expected until tomorrow when the full Cabinet is set to meet.
Leaving Government Buildings last night, Transport Minister and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan said the various implications of escalating restrictions have to be considered including the impact on people’s employment and mental health. He said the numbers being hospitalised and in ICUs are rising but not in such a way that “taking a day or two to consider any actions” would not be appropriate.
Senior coalition figures were told yesterday of the huge societal costs of Level 5 including 120,000 people being laid off and businesses being unable to recover from an extended closure for the second time this year.
The Government has been told the cost of paying the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) to hundreds of thousands of employees who would be out of work would be €100m per week under Level 4 and €160m under Level 5. The State is already paying out €60m per week in PUP payments to 228,000 workers.
On top of this, a government source said Level 4 or 5 restrictions would see the State pay out close to €100m a week under the new Covid Restrictions Support Scheme, which will offer weekly grants of up to €5,000 each to businesses forced to close.
Details of the €260m cost of supporting businesses and workers if restrictions are escalated emerged, the Sunday Independent understands “a more up-to-date” definition of a ‘designated worker’ and an ‘essential service’ is to be considered before new measures are put in place.
For example, essential services for Level 4 contain 18 categories including “construction and development” workers but building site workers are not deemed essential under Level 5.
However, Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien is understood to have advised the construction sector that it is an essential service in Levels 4 and 5.
There are also several questions to be resolved around employment supports. The Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme, announced in July, was designed for employers reopening after the first lockdown, not for a second lockdown. “It’s complicated,” a government source said last night, adding: “There is general agreement we need to escalate our response.”
Other issues being examined by ministers this weekend are measures that would seek to tackle house parties, but stop short of giving gardaí the power to enter people’s homes. Justice Minister Helen McEntee is set to bring proposals to Cabinet on Tuesday.
It is also intended to further consult with the Northern Ireland authorities in relation to restriction measures implemented there.
The spread of Covid is widely believed to have spilled over into three border counties here — Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan — which are already on Level 4 restrictions.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin was yesterday briefed by Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan and senior public health officials before a meeting with Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, Green Party leader Eamon Ryan, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe, Public Expenditure Minister Michael McGrath and Health Minister Stephen Donnelly.
There was a Q&A between the six Cabinet members and Dr Holohan and officials including HSE boss Paul Reid who told the Government of his concerns that non-Covid care will be hit by a surge of hospital and ICU admissions as a result of the virus. Mr Reid’s views on the health service’s capacity to cope in the coming weeks will be critical to the final decision.
There was growing resistance among coalition ministers and TDs to a move to Level 5, with some Cabinet ministers privately saying the entire State should instead go to Level 4. However, the “alarming trajectory” and rapidly rising number of cases could force the Coalition to implement the public health recommendations in full, a senior government source admitted.
Privately, some members of the Cabinet are opposed to a move to Level 5, while others believe “somewhere between Level 4 and 5” is what is likely to happen.
Ministers are also furious at Nphet, blaming the group for twice leaking advice to go to lockdown before the Government could consider it in recent weeks and for failing to provide guidance on what would constitute success and therefore allow restrictions to be eased.
Numerical targets exist in other countries that dictate what restrictions are imposed.
For example, Germany last week agreed to limit private gatherings and impose an 11pm curfew on bars and restaurants in areas where the weekly rate is more than 35 new cases per 100,000 people. Once the 50 new cases per 100,000 threshold is exceeded, more stringent measures will be imposed across the country’s 16 federal states.
One Cabinet minister said: “Five is very severe economically. I wouldn’t go to 5. People need a bit of a shake-up. Home visits had to be dealt with and if that’s adhered to that should make a difference. We’ve got to make sure that the medicine doesn’t kill the patient.”
A second Cabinet minister also signalled a resistance to Level 5 restrictions, saying: “[We] need to give Level 4 time first.”
Their views were echoed by various ministers and TDs publicly and privately yesterday. Fianna Fáil junior health minister Anne Rabbitte signalled her opposition to escalating restrictions at this time. “We are getting the best public health advice from Nphet and we have always adhered to it. But I think we need time to let the current levels work where we have Level 3 for most of the country.”
Influential Fianna Fáil backbenchers Jim O’Callaghan and Barry Cowen are opposed to Level 5, while another senior TD, Willie O’Dea, suggested a move to Level 4 first.
In Fine Gael, former Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy is among a number of senior party TDs who are against another lockdown.
“Every new day under restrictions this economic situation becomes more precarious for all of us and more permanent damage to our economy is done. I am not being heartless about Covid or the difficult times people are going through... but we must think about the non-Covid health damage being done in our society and the damage being done to jobs in our economy,” Mr Murphy said last week.
Meanwhile, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has again declined to state whether her party supports Nphet recommendations to move to Level 5.
“We are certainly on our way to higher levels of restrictions; possibly to Level 5. The situation is very grave and Sinn Féin will support necessary measures to save lives and to protect public health,” she told the
‘Moving to Level 5 may see extra 120,000 lose their jobs’
Leo Varadkar, Eamon Ryan and Michael McGrath last night. Right, Tony Holohan
Health Minister Stephen Donnelly HSE boss Paul Reid
Taoiseach Micheál Martin