I thank all the Deputies who have contributed to the debate today. I ask for their indulgence because many issues have been raised. I will try to respond to as many as I can but for those that I do not address there will be an opportunity for the relevant Ministers to discuss them on Committee Stage. I share the concerns expressed about increased reliance on moneylending during the crisis and would strongly encourage people to consider their local credit unions and to approach the Money Advice and Budgeting Service, MABS, if they find themselves in financial difficulty. The Central Bank's code of conduct for licensed moneylenders prohibits unsolicited contact or cold-calling except in certain limited circumstances. To use a familiar phrase, my advice is to keep the wolves from the door and go to the local credit union which people can trust.
Business interruption insurance and a claim in respect of loss of earnings because of closure due to Covid-19 will depend on the specifics of the business's policy. However, as a general rule, I believe that insurers should not attempt to reject claims on the basis of interpreting policies to their own advantage. Where businesses have had to close on the basis of advice or a direction to close by the Government and their insurance policy covers such a scenario, insurers should engage with those businesses honestly, fairly and professionally to honour those elements of the policies covered. Where a policy states that a claim can be made when a business has closed as a result of a Government direction because of a general notifiable infectious disease, I believe that Government advice to close a business amounts to the same thing. Insurers should not try to distinguish between these situations where there is a general infectious disease provision in a policy in order to avoid payment of claims. In this regard, the Government's direction to childcare providers and its advice to pubs and clubs to close is sufficient for those businesses to be able to make a claim on their insurance where the appropriate business interruption cover is in place.
The Central Bank has issued a questionnaire to the main providers of business interruption insurance in Ireland. Firms were required to provide the number of policies, the aggregate sums insured for business interruption, and the potential level of cover for Covid-19-related claims. The bank is currently analysing the returns and will update Department of Finance officials as soon as it can. I also understand that the Central Bank is to write to the insurance industry, setting out how it expects insurance firms to handle the settlement of claims arising from the Covid-19 pandemic. The regulator's view is that firms must ensure that all claims are appropriately assessed and where insurance cover is in place, that claims are accepted and paid.
With regard to the social protection measures, some Deputies queried whether the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment, which is known as Covid PUP, should be payable to the people returning from Canada, Australia and other countries. The Covid PUP is deliberately targeted at people who have been living and working in Ireland at the time the pandemic struck. It is directed at people who lost all employment and who are living here. People returning to Ireland who cannot find work should apply for jobseeker's allowance and the habitual residency conditionality will continue to apply as appropriate. There were also a number of queries about people who work part-time or casually and who are now unemployed because of Covid-19. I confirm that those workers will be entitled to the Covid-19 emergency payment. Likewise, one is also entitled to it if self-employed.
Other Deputies raised points regarding eligibility if one is already in receipt of a social welfare payment. To be clear, if one is working and in receipt of a social welfare payment such as carer's allowance, the one-parent family payment or the rural social scheme, one can, provided one has lost a job due to Covid-19, also claim the Covid-19 emergency payment in addition to retaining one's existing welfare payment. The Covid-19 unemployment payment will replace one's employment income and will be regarded by the Department as equivalent to employment income. A number of queries were raised about people who have already applied for or who are already in receipt of the €203 rate of payment. If a person applied before 24 March or is already in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment, he or she does not need to do anything. The next payment will be paid at the increased rate. This is a solidarity payment. If people are defrauding their fellow citizens by claiming dishonestly, the full force of the law will be applied. The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection will investigate potential fraud situations as they come to its attention. A number of Deputies have raised the issue of frontier workers. I am very familiar with that from living in County Monaghan, where people work south of the Border and live in Northern Ireland. We are currently looking at that situation. A number of other issues were raised and I will be happy to discuss any other aspects of social protection measures later.
Many Deputies have spoken on the housing measures in the Bill. It is important to say that this is an emergency Bill to cover a period of an extraordinary national emergency. The Bill is not intended as a means to introduce new legislation to address wider issues across the housing sector. Such measures could prove counterproductive and could, after the emergency is over, lead to a decline in the availability of particular forms of accommodation. The Government is acutely conscious of the financial pressures on renters and actions taken to date will ensure that people will remain living in their homes for the duration of the Covid-19 emergency. The Government urges landlords and tenants to work together to ensure the best solutions are found during this emergency. The Government is very conscious of the need to protect vulnerable people and the local authority sector is working with the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government to secure additional accommodation, including across our homeless services. The Minister of State, Deputy English, will discuss these and other aspects of the housing section of the Bill in more detail on Committee Stage.
It is difficult to believe that just a few short weeks ago Ireland was at full employment with record numbers at work. Practically overnight, the economic and employment landscape was utterly transformed by Covid-19. We are in a crisis which is unprecedented in the history of State. First and foremost, the Government is focused on responding to the public health emergency we face. That is the overriding priority, but we are also acutely aware of the great economic challenges Ireland is now facing. I know this is an extremely worrying and distressing time for the many businesses that have had to close their doors and for the thousands of workers who have lost their jobs.
These are difficult days but Covid-19 will not last forever. It will end and we must be ready when it does. That is why, through the wage subsidy scheme, we want to ensure that businesses are able to keep their employees on the books so that, when we come out the other side of this, Ireland and our citizens can get back to work as quickly as possible. By maintaining that crucial link between the employer and the employee, we will be best placed to kick-start the economy once again. Through this scheme, the Government is essentially entering into an economic partnership with businesses and employers nationwide so that we can support them and their staff through this unprecedented crisis. I encourage those employers who may have let go staff last week to now look at this scheme and, where possible, to consider taking back on those staff and availing of the supports available. At the end of the day, businesses will want to keep their good, dedicated, loyal staff and to have them ready to go once this crisis has passed.
A number of Deputies have raised issues regarding supports for businesses. I will go through these very briefly. The €200 million working capital loan scheme is open for application on the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland website. It provides for loans of up to €500,000. These loans may be unsecured and businesses can opt to repay interest only at the start of the loan. Loans of up to €50,000 are available through Microfinance Ireland, with no interest or repayments for the first six months. These loans can be used as a liquidity instrument to deal with cash flow problems with no interest charged for six months. We will continue to review this as necessary. This provides six months of free credit. Applications can be made through a local enterprise office. The credit guarantee scheme, which provides loans of up to €1 million, also allows for the option of refinancing existing loans.
Local enterprise offices in every single county are offering vouchers worth between €2,500 and €10,000 to support businesses in being prepared. Commercial rates can be deferred for three months and banks have signed up to a number of measures to support businesses, including loan and mortgage forbearance of three months. The Minister, Deputy Donohoe, has also announced a number of measures to be operated through Revenue which will help SMEs experiencing cash flow problems. We have also extended the deadline for companies to file their annual returns with the Companies Registration Office until the end of June.
All of these measures will come at a huge cost but we hope that by acting now we will have fewer people falling into unemployment in the long run so that our economy can recover as quickly as possible. As I see it, there are three stages through which businesses will need to be supported during this crisis: the initial shock, stabilisation, and the reboot phase when the public health emergency has passed. When one sees a report such as that from the ESRI this morning which predicts that unemployment could reach 18%, it tells one why our focus must be on stabilisation and on protecting key sectors of the economy at this time. My officials are engaging with the Department of Finance and with the European Commission. I assure the Deputies that further supports will be forthcoming. I want to ensure we have the right supports for businesses at the right time.
With regard to the supply chain, I have been in constant contact with the retail and grocery distribution sector, which continues to assure me that we have a strong pipeline of products for our citizens. Once again, I thank the countless retail staff who are working around the clock to ensure our supermarket shelves remain full during this difficult period.
I thank the many people working behind the scenes to make that possible - the farmers, producers, hauliers, the palleting and logistics companies, the people who work in the ports and the ferry companies as well as the staff in the farm and medtech sectors and many more. These are front-line staff who are putting their shoulders to the wheel and contributing to the national effort.
All these schemes may not be perfect. There will be flaws. However, that is what happens when legislation is drawn up in the space of a few days as opposed to over the course of many months, as would normally happen. However, as Dr. Michael Ryan of the WHO said recently, when one is in a crisis "speed trumps perfection". What the Government is doing is a genuine attempt to support our businesses and citizens and to ensure they get the right support. I acknowledge the support and co-operation of all sides of the House at this time. This is a collective national effort and I thank all the Members for that.