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Taoiseach: Changes allowing people to do some work without losing PUP could form part of Budget

Micheál Martin spoke to TheJournal.ie about the Dublin restrictions, the Budget and his backstage run-in with Mike Murphy in RTÉ.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

TWEAKS TO THE social welfare system could allow those on the pandemic unemployment payment (PUP) to do some work without losing out on their payment. 

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, Taoiseach Micheál Martin confirmed that the PUP system is being reviewed by Government and that any changes will target the sectors of the economy worst hit by the pandemic.

The changes may form part of the 13 October Budget, with the Taoiseach stating that the Government is looking at how to use the social welfare system “creatively”.

PUP is available to employees and the self-employed who lost their job on or after 13 March due to the Covid-19 pandemic.  

New applications will now be accepted until the end of 2020.

“There could be more localised lockdowns into the future so it’s only fair that people would be open to avail of the Pandemic Unemployment Payment if they lost a job because of a mandated closure,” Martin said.

Over the weekend, Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien hinted that the full amount of €350-a-week might be restored in badly-hit sectors. It follows changes brought in last week that saw payments for many recipients reduced. 

In terms of restoring the rates, Martin said the prospect was not off the table.

“We have to look at that, we will review all of the initiatives we’ve taken to date to see do we have to improve them.”

He said no decision has been made in relation to the rates, insisting that he would not preempt what would be announced on Budget Day.

Martin said “more sector specific approaches” are being considered – adding that workers in hospitality, tourism and travel, as well as those in music and the arts, are most in need of extra help. 

The government is examining using the social protection system “a bit more creatively to see if we can enable people to do some work”.

“They’re not going to get the same volume of work in that sector as they would have gotten before but if they can do some work without having to lose out on their social protection payments.”

He said this was being considered as many people were having to make a “very hard call” in deciding whether to come off their payments to go back to work.

“They might not get the amount of work in a week that would justify doing that.

“I think the budget is an opportunity to take stock again from the July stimulus and see what we can do to continue to support entrepreneurs, business and underpin people in jobs,” he said.

Martin’s comments come amid speculation that other counties could be moved to Level Three at the end of this week, after the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) next meets on Thursday.

Yesterday, senior civil servant Liz Canavan said that counties Louth, Waterford, Limerick, Kildare, Donegal, Leitrim and Offaly have shown “concerning trends”. 

The Taoiseach said the next three weeks will be crucial in determining whether the Dublin restrictions work, meanwhile, in stabilising the numbers.

“We’re keeping an eye on the rest of the country, and particularly in terms of Louth, and Donegal and then Waterford, again, urging people to halve their number of social contacts as opposed to the number you would have had last week, and to maintain social distancing, and to do the basics. Because that will help us to avoid having to move to Level 3 in any one of those counties.”

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

Winter plan 

The HSE winter plan, to be announced this Thursday, will include €600 million in new funding. 

Martin said it would outline how the State plans to ramp up hospital capacity ahead of winter, and also give detail on diagnostic hubs and community clinical hubs which, it’s planned, will be used by people with a respiratory illness so they do not have to go to hospital to get treatment.

A range of other measures will also be rolled out to try and ease the pressures on hospital emergency departments.

“There will be pressures, it’s going to be a very difficult winter, because of flu, Covid and the normal health pressures.” 

The Taoiseach confirmed that discussions are underway between the HSE and private hospitals in terms of procuring hospital capacity “in respect of certain tasks and work”.

The HSE agreed a deal to take over private hospitals for a number of months at the beginning of the pandemic. The Taoiseach said the winter plan would not sign up to the same measures.

“The last deal obviously had to be done in the middle of the pandemic. People didn’t realise how serious this would be and so the hospitals were simply procured, and then  there was a big row in terms of utilisation of facilities.

“So this will be different this time. It’s a more bespoke model. In other words, it’s more procuring services from the hospitals [...] in terms of diagnostics and other areas, I think the HSE is working on that and there are tenders out there in terms of certain capacity that the HSE may need in certain areas. They will procure that capacity if a surge was to happen,” said Martin.

The Taoiseach said there will be specific bed capacity targets in this week’s plan, for both acute and non-acute beds, as well as home-care packages.

Post-Cabinet press briefing015 Source: Rollingnews.ie

Test and trace 

Last week, Sinn Féin targetted the government’s testing and tracing system, describing it as woefully inadequate.

A number of health experts have also reiterated the need for rapid turnaround times, especially as demand for tests increases during cold and flu season over the winter. 

Martin insisted Sinn Féin’s criticisms were over the top. The HSE currently has the capacity to do 100,000 Covid tests per week, he said, with a German lab on standby to cope if Ireland’s capacity is exceeded. 

The Taoiseach also didn’t rule out the less invasive saliva swabbing being used in some cases, instead of the current nasopharyngeal swab.

Whether the new tests are rolled out is up to public health experts, said the Taoiseach, stating that NPHET would have to be satisfied as to the new test’s accuracy.

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“I think it’s some bit away yet. But obviously, in some locations or some areas, that might be an option.”

A number of doctors have called for an end to the daily reporting of Covid-19 figures, with one GP describing them as a “self-perpetuating cycle of misery”.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said that the daily figures should be published “because the more transparency the better”. However, he said there should not be an “obsessive” focus on them. 

The Taoiseach, meanwhile, dismissed concerns about the daily reporting of the case numbers, stating it was important that people are “alert and aware”. 

Until there is a vaccine, the Taoiseach said a significant number of people will remain worried and anxious.

“I don’t accept the argument that just because the numbers are produced every day that that’s adding to the anxiety and worry, people want to know, people want information.

“They want knowledge, knowledge is power, knowledge increases your capacity to prevent getting the virus. So I think this idea of sort of putting it into the background and hoping people don’t notice that it’s growing – I don’t accept that.”

It has been highlighted that Ireland is taking a far more strict approach to containing the pandemic than other EU countries particularly when it comes to international travel and issues like the reopening of pubs. 

Martin said he is happy with Ireland’s current stance, however, adding: 

“I am in the sense that different countries do different things. There are difficulties now in Madrid, significant difficulties in the UK, and in other European countries. And again, what we’re all learning across Europe and elsewhere is this virus doesn’t respect the best laid plans.”

One area of concern to the Taoiseach is the “demarcation line between pubs with pizza” which he said was “becoming untenable and lacking credibility over time”.

He said he understood why the last government introduced the oft-criticised €9 meal rule to allow pubs that serve food to reopen – in that it was a way of keeping people seated – but he said more and more pubs were coming to arrangements with local pizza operations, and blurring the lines between ‘wet’ pubs and food establishments.  

As we head into winter, particularly in rural Ireland, the Taoiseach said he can see the importance of pubs opening their doors.

_N9I9949 Mike Murphy Source: Andres Poveda

Murphy’s law 

Speaking about being confronted by Mike Murphy over the weekend backstage in RTÉ the Taoiseach described the veteran broadcaster as being “quite polite and firm”. 

Both men were on the Saturday morning Brendan O’Connor show. Though they weren’t on air at the same time, Murphy told the host that he had met Martin in a corridor and bent his ear on current cononavirus policies – having had to cancel a holiday due to Green List changes. 

Murphy also said in his interview that as someone over 70, he was not minded to cocoon this winter, no matter what the advice is. 

The Taoiseach said in terms of people over 70, the government advice now is to exercise your own judgement.

“There are plenty of fit 70 year olds,” he said, urging them to keep their two metre distance from others if they are out and about this winter.

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