- 18 Mar 20
In Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s speech to the nation last night, there was impressive talk of solidarity. Now is the time for the Government to put that into action with a decision of the kind made in Denmark, where the State has committed to paying 75% of workers’ salaries.
Ireland must introduce far-reaching economic measures to save private companies from annihilation and their employees from being crushed financially by Covid-19. And they must do so immediately.
This is the stark truth, which has so far gone unspoken by the Government, and which was not alluded to in a really meaningful way in the speech to the nation given last night by the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar.
The response to that speech published last night on hotpress.com was positive and rightly so. In many ways, the essence of the speech was its appeal for solidarity, both here in Ireland and across the world. That we need more, rather than less, of this is absolutely correct. And there is no doubt that the speech will have a positive impact in terms of Ireland’s reputation and standing in the world. All that is to be applauded.
But much more than that is needed now.
If we talk about solidarity then we have to follow through now, when it matters, on what that means – or will mean. People working for the State may be under strain in all sorts of ways. Those who work in the health system especially so: they have to go to the frontline and take risks that others will never have to. That has to be hugely appreciated by one and all.
But on the flip side, people in the private sector are currently looking down the barrel of a metaphorical gun. So far there have been well over a hundred thousand lay-offs. And that number is increasing daily. If the Government doesn’t intervene, there will be carnage – from which individual workers and the companies for which they work alike may never recover.
Some measures have been taken. The Revenue Commissioners will not chase people for VAT payments that would come due shortly. Measures to enable people to move quickly to receive social welfare payments have been put in place. But this is nowhere near enough to achieve the kind of equity to which people are entitled, in a state of national emergency in which the Government has effectively enforced closures.
That they have done so is right: no other decision was possible in the circumstances. But they cannot now simply let 'the market' decide what happens to the entire range of commercial activities in this country – and to the associated jobs and the workers that carry them out?
Can politicians, who are guaranteed that their own income will come pouring in for the next five years or so, understand this? Do they know the terrible feelings of wild despair that are coursing across the country as I write, and will undoubtedly lead to multiple breakdowns and potentially suicides?
We are fond, in Ireland, of talking about ‘best practice’ – and of applying rules and regulations on that basis. Well, we should do the same now in relation to the international response to the impact of Covid-19.
And, for a start, that means looking at the measures that have been introduced in Denmark.
There, the Government has committed to paying 75% of the salaries of employees who are paid on a monthly basis, for an initial three-month period. The employers then have to pay the remaining 25% of the salary. The specific aim of these measures is to prevent lay-offs in the private sector but also to achieve some sort of relative equalisation with people who work for the State.
There is provision for workers who are paid by the hour too, with the Government committing to covering 90% of their wages, up to €3,477 a month.
This commitment from the Danish Government is retrospective, so that people laid off last week, as a result of Coronavirus, will also be covered.
The Danish model is not perfect. As Hot Press understands it, the self-employed, owners of businesses and casual staff are not covered. And in truth, there is no reason why they should be discriminated against, any more than salaried workers. But the important starting point is that, by offering a huge level of stability to workers and companies – even if it is just for an initial three months – the panic that people inevitably feel might be held in check.
The Government should also look hard at the proposal to freeze rent and mortgage payments for anyone who is even temporarily out of work.
Right now, all over Ireland, decisions about the future are being taken. Sales have dried up. Staff are being told that there is no money there to pay them. To stem the rise in the numbers of those being told they are being laid off – temporarily or otherwise – is imperative.
The Danish government have shown that there is a way. Ireland needs to follow suit. If we really do want the economy to "bounce back” when the impact of Covid-19 has worked its way through the system, then we need the staff and the workers to be in place. We need businesses that are ready to rock.
And in the meantime, we all need food on the table. The time to act is now.