Tomorrow the Taoiseach will announce his plan for the gradual reopening of our society and economy. There is now some light at the end of the tunnel. As more vaccines come on stream, all of us hope that we can start to catch up with others and that more people will start getting back to work. For all of us, particularly for those who have not seen a day's work in over a year, a return to working life cannot come quickly enough. However, the reality as we meet today is that there are more than 400,000 workers relying on the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and a further 310,000 depending on the wage subsidy scheme. There are tens of thousands of workers who have not seen a day's work in over a year and many of them are wondering if they will return to work at all. There is still great uncertainty for workers, particularly in the sectors hardest hit by the pandemic. I refer to those who are prevented from going to work due to public health restrictions and for them, income supports have been absolutely vital in keeping their heads above water and just making it to the end of each week.
Yesterday, at a meeting of the Oireachtas Select Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach, the Taoiseach failed to give a concrete assurance that income supports will not be cut during this emergency. Indeed, speaking on RTÉ on Monday, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, was equally unclear as to what those on income supports might face come the end of June. The Government's lack of clarity is causing great anxiety for those who have seen their incomes collapse through no fault of their own. They are already dealing with the stress of not knowing when they will be able to earn a living again, while also trying to keep their families safe during this pandemic. The pressure on them is immense and the least they deserve is certainty that the income supports on which they depend will not be pulled from under them.
The plan to reopen the economy, which the Taoiseach will announce tomorrow, must include an absolute assurance that while public health advice prevents workers from going to work and businesses from operating, income supports will continue. I very much hope that this will be for the short term. None of us wants this to go on forever. It cannot go on forever because people need to get back to work. Now is not the time for the Taoiseach or his Government colleagues to be floating ideas about cuts or the phasing out of supports. Workers still have rents, mortgages and bills to pay and food to put on the table and many have children to provide for. The PUP has been their lifeline and any decision to cut supports would be grossly unfair. In fact, it would be devastating for these families. These are families who watched on as the Taoiseach signed off on an obscene pay hike of €81,000 for the new Secretary General of the Department of Health and as he delivered pay hikes for super junior Ministers and judges and pension hikes for former Taoisigh. There cannot be one rule for those at top and another for those struggling to get by. That is exactly what happened following the previous crash but it cannot be repeated now.
We face immense challenges but they are not insurmountable. We can build a stronger, fairer Ireland but only if we have a fair recovery driven by investment, stimulus and, above all, a determination to protect the well-being of workers and families. That must start today. The Taoiseach is being cautious and careful with the reopening. I ask him to be equally cautious and careful with these families and to clarify that the supports they rely on will not be cut or phased out as long as there is a public health emergency.