€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

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - FRONT PAGE - Hugh O’Con­nell and Jody Cor­co­ran

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’

Photos: David Conachy

Leo Varad­kar, Ea­mon Ryan and Michael McGrath last night. Right, Tony Holo­han

Health Min­is­ter Stephen Don­nelly HSE boss Paul Reid

Taoiseach Micheál Martin

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