Fáilte romhaibh a chomhghleacaithe tar éis an lóin. Is cúis áthais dom fáilte a chur roimh an Tánaiste chuig an Seanad. Tréaslaím leis as an gceannaireacht agus as an tiomantas a thugann sé ina Roinn agus sa Rialtas ina iomláine. Táim buíoch go bhfuil sé féin i láthair chun éisteacht le tuairimí na Seanadóirí. The Tánaiste is very welcome to the Chamber. We salute his leadership and commitment within his Department and the Government. I am personally delighted, as are our colleagues, that he is here to listen to this important debate with us and to hear the views of Senators. I invite the Tánaiste to address the House.
Covid-19 and the New Measures (Enterprise, Trade and Employment): Statements
I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for the opportunity to speak about Covid-19 and the recently-announced new restrictions. This is only my second time to address the Twenty-sixth Seanad. I am pleased to do so, and look forward to doing so again soon.
When I spoke here last, in April, we were reopening the economy after a very difficult start to the year following the very severe Alpha wave. I said at the time that we wanted to avoid a fourth wave later in 2021 and that, this time, we wanted construction, retail, hospitality and tourism to reopen and stay open. Eight months on, the picture of progress is quite mixed. Despite the successful vaccination programme and what seemed like a gradual normalisation of society, the virus is still very much with us and we are now experiencing a serious fourth wave.
The new restrictions announced on Friday, which apply today, were a bitter pill and a bitter disappointment to all of us. They were a body blow in particular for sectors like hospitality, the arts, events entertainment and leisure. For the first time in the pandemic, we are tightening restrictions when the epidemiological situation appears to be improving, when numbers in hospital and ICU have peaked and are falling - or at least it appears that way - and deaths are at a relatively low level, thankfully.
We are now outperforming even the most optimistic models presented to us only a few weeks ago. This is due to the success of the third dose vaccine programme. We expect that 1 million people will have received their third dose by the end of this week. We have a robust test and isolate programme. More tests are being carried out every day than at any time since the pandemic began. We also have effective non-pharmaceutical interventions, NPIs, such as the wearing of masks.
When making decisions we did so based on strong public health advice and three concerns in particular: first, the certainty of increased social mixing as we approach Christmas and the impact that might have; a flu season that we did not experience last year but expect to experience this year and, of course, our immunity to the flu has waned as a consequence of social distancing; and, particularly, uncertainty about the Omicron variant. The public continues to play a really positive role in the fight against Covid-19 by embracing the vaccination programme and responding to public health advice. That resolve will be crucial in getting through the winter ahead.
Since the outbreak of Covid-19 here in March 2020, the Government has sought to save as many lives and as many livelihoods as possible. The evidence indicates that we are doing well on both counts. Our number of deaths per million is among the lowest in the EU while our vaccination rate is among the highest. That is not a coincidence.
We have sought to keep workers connected to their employers and on the payroll. We have sought to help businesses survive through a robust and sustained programme of financial support from the Government. The Department of Finance estimates that we will have spent €48 billion to support businesses and workers by the end of 2022. This is the largest intervention by the State in the economy since the bank guarantee but it is a much better one.
The main schemes such as the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, and the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, compare very well internationally. We have extended these schemes well beyond their original end dates. We will continue to provide assistance where and when it is needed. This was evident on Friday when we announced a package of financial interventions for the hospitality, events and entertainment sectors. The package includes three options: an enhanced CRSS scheme for the affected sectors to supplement existing EWSS payments - and I anticipate that the Minister for Finance will be able to announced the details tomorrow; an extension of the targeted commercial rates waiver at least until the end of March next year; and an extra €25 million from the Covid contingency fund applied to the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, in particular to assist the live entertainment, arts and performance sectors. As Senators will be aware, the PUP has also been reopened for workers who lose their jobs or have lost their jobs as a result of the newly announced restrictions.
As I said, the Government will step in to assist when and where it is necessary but we must do so in a targeted way. Some parts of the economy and, indeed, the economy in the round are performing extremely well. It is our responsibility to help those sectors that are not. Thankfully, we can afford to do so and I would argue that we cannot afford not to.
From the point of view of my Department, more than 100,000 restart grants have been paid out to businesses during the course of 2021. Where existing schemes did not reach certain businesses, we designed new ones to fill the gaps with ad hoc programmes such as the small business assistance scheme for Covid, SBASC, and the events sector Covid support scheme. There will need to be another round of the latter scheme given the most recent announcement and the impact that will have on the events sector. Other Departments acted similarly with special schemes for transport, aviation, the arts and sports among others.
Although they are not as well known and are not talked about much, Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland, InterTradeIreland, Údarás na Gaeltachta and local enterprise offices, LEOs, have all provided funding to businesses since March 2020. For example, the not so well known sustaining enterprise fund has approved €206 million in non-repayable grants and loans thus helping to sustain approximately 30,000 jobs in businesses ranging from engineering to construction, to food and to consumer retail. We also introduced a range of new loans to help businesses respond to Covid-19 and Brexit. For example, 7,700 loans have been drawn down under the State's largest ever loan facility, the Covid-19 credit guarantee scheme, totalling more than €500 million.
We are extending the scheme for at least another six months by way of an amendment to the Social Welfare Bill due to be enacted this month. I am sure the Seanad will be happy to support this. The Department is also carrying out a review of our most popular and oversubscribed loan scheme, that is, the future growth loan scheme, with a view to a new loan product to replace it in 2022. It is a little-known fact that almost one third of all lending to business is now Government-backed in some way.
Many people predicted a tsunami of business closures when the pandemic first hit in early 2020. Thankfully, that has not transpired, at least not yet. In the meantime, we have reformed the law in this area to help as many businesses as possible to survive. Earlier today, I signed an order commencing the new small companies administrative rescue process, SCARP, legislation. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, for spearheading this initiative and the Senators present for their speedy consideration of the Bill earlier in the year. From today, small and micro companies have access to a new restructuring and rescue process mirroring examinership but in an administrative form. It is designed to be cheaper and faster than the court-sponsored examinership system and, taken together with the range of grants and loans available, should save viable businesses and jobs that would otherwise have been lost.
When the Government published the economic recovery plan in June, I stated that we were going to go for broke by backing business to ensure our economy could recover lost ground quickly and exceed pre-crisis employment levels by 2024. Five months on, the strategy is working. The economy is rebounding strongly. Employment figures released last week show that more than 110,000 people returned to work in the third quarter of the year. Encouragingly, employment is up in every region and every sector. A smooth recovery, however, is certainly not guaranteed, and the announcement last Friday of the reimposition of some restrictions is a reminder to us all in that regard. It is a setback and we need to acknowledge that, but the economic recovery plan is not just about recovery. It is also about the future, enabling workers and businesses to make the green and digital transition.
Later this week, I will launch the climate toolkit for business with my colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan. It will provide businesses with a tailored assessment of their carbon footprint. This complements initiatives such as the new green for micro scheme and the lean for micro scheme which benefit businesses through cost savings, improving resource efficiency, reducing environmental impacts and enhancing competitiveness and productivity.
We will be doing our best to help businesses to adapt and plan for the next decade, especially the digital transition. This will include a new €10 million digital transition fund to increase digitalisation of all businesses across products, processes, supply chains and business models and initiatives to help to upskill workers.
The economic recovery plan is also about building a more inclusive economy, with fewer barriers to employment and better conditions for employees. We have already seen the benefits of remote and flexible working. It opens up a range of possibilities for rural Ireland, with less commuting and fewer barriers to employment, particularly for people with caring responsibilities - including, but not exclusively, many women - and those with disabilities.
In the near future, I will be publishing draft legislation on the right to request remote work. This complements the work already done under the national remote work strategy, such as the introduction of the new code of practice on the right to disconnect. The legislation on the right to request remote work has taken longer than I anticipated, but there is good reason for this. New rights are being created for the first time in Ireland and our extensive stakeholder consultation has illustrated the breadth of issues on which we must strike a delicate balance.
The House is aware of the actions I am taking to improve workers’ terms and conditions, including a further increase in the minimum wage, due in January; the introduction of statutory sick pay, which is currently under consideration by the committee; the move to a living wage; the protection of tips; and a review of collective bargaining and the industrial relations landscape in Ireland.
At the moment, we are finalising legislation giving effect to Ireland’s first statutory sick pay scheme. The Oireachtas committee’s pre-legislative scrutiny report is awaited and we will progress the Bill as soon as the report is received.
Earlier this year, I asked the Low Pay Commission to examine how Ireland could move towards a living wage and to make recommendations on the best and most suitable approach in an Irish context. I am awaiting that report and hope to bring proposals to the Cabinet in the new year.
In October, I received Government approval for draft legislation to protect employees’ tips and give customers transparency in respect of how tips are distributed and what happens to the service charge they pay.
We should be able to enact that legislation in the first half of next year. I aim to do so before the summer recess. I do not have time to mention all the reforms we are pursuing in the Department and across government but I am confident they will lead to a substantial improvement in the terms and conditions of workers, without damaging business or the wider competitiveness of society.
I am conscious that many businesses are really struggling and that some will be struggling for some time to come. Therefore, we will sequence these reforms appropriately over the next few years. The most important workers' right is the right to work, and I do not want to do anything that might cause businesses to fail or workers to have their hours reduced or to lose their jobs. I look forward to hearing Senators' contributions and to responding to their questions later.
I thank the Tánaiste for his comprehensive address, which should give rise to an interesting debate. I appeal to colleagues to stay within time because there is a long list of speakers. If they exceed the time, we will end up with Members who will be unable to contribute at the end. Group spokespersons have eight minutes each.
I am sharing my time with Senator Maria Byrne.
I welcome the Tánaiste to the Chamber and thank him for attending. I am conscious that as we speak, there are businesses right across the country that are closed not because of Covid measures but because of Storm Barra. It is a really difficult time for businesses today. This will possibly be the case tomorrow. They are extremely worried about that. In that context, about a year ago the Tánaiste and the Minister of State responsible for the OPW, Deputy O'Donovan, set up a humanitarian support scheme for businesses that were not able to secure insurance at the time. Will there be such a measure after the current storm? The Minister responsible for housing was speaking in this Chamber some hours ago about this matter. There is a case for another scheme, depending on how it goes over the next 24 hours.
I welcome the Tánaiste's contribution. The number of measures introduced in the past year and a half is phenomenal. There are two sectors on which I want to focus: hospitality and tourism. Over recent weeks, and certainly in the past two months, businesses in the hospitality sector, such as pubs, restaurants and hotels, have been really worried about what will happen at Christmas. There was almost a feeling that it was inevitable that they would be closed over the winter months. When the announcement came last week, many of the people I have spoken to were reassured that they would be able to continue and keep staff employed over Christmas. The sense I get from employers, in particular, is that they really appreciate the support that has been given to the sector over the past 18 months. The EWSS, the CRSS, the online trading voucher, the rates waiver, which has been welcomed for the first quarter of next year also, and the restart grants are among many measures put in place to support businesses. Businesses say that if it had not been for those supports, they would not be operating.
Many hoteliers, including those from Minella Hotel in Clonmel and the Anner Hotel in Thurles, have got on to me to outline their concerns. They say their occupancy rate over Christmas will drop to approximately 27%. This is a huge reduction. The hoteliers expect an occupancy rate of 5% to 8% in January and February. Therefore, there will be considerable worry over the coming months. While hoteliers welcome the announcement made last week, they have some requests. It will take time for them to see the results of the new measures that are being introduced, particularly under CRSS, to support them in keeping on their employees. Some of their requests relate to the EWSS and the qualification criteria. It has been requested that businesses that are eligible in December be allowed to requalify for EWSS supports in January. On the CRSS supports, hospitality businesses have requested that the criteria include automatic qualification for CRSS supports if they qualify for the EWSS.
Many hotels have asked me to argue that the weekly cap on CRSS payments should be set at €25,000 to ensure that large hospitality businesses will not be disadvantaged by the scheme. The hotel sector is the lifeblood of many rural towns. It is the heartbeat of everything that happens and there is a strong knock-on economic effect when hotels are performing well.
On tourism, there many tour operators, including golf tour operators and other small businesses throughout the country - I am thinking of one I know in Cahir, Tourwise - that create two, three or four jobs. They get the EWSS, which is very beneficial to keeping people employed. During 2021, however, a scheme was set up through the European Union, namely, the Ireland-based inbound agents, IBIA, business continuity scheme, to support businesses when it was clear that few or no tourists were going to be coming into the country. A total of €10 million in funding was provided by the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media. As I think we are going to be in the same position next year, perhaps that scheme could be used again next year for these businesses. Their base has reduced by 99.6% and 93%, and a scheme like that would be very beneficial to keep them going.
I welcome the Tánaiste to this very important debate. I thank him and the Government for not being found wanting over the past 18 months with their support for businesses. As I hear every day from businesses in my neck of woods in Limerick, many of them would not have survived if not for the supports that have been put in place. As the Tánaiste said on Friday last, while we do not yet know the full extent of the Omicron variant and what people face, the correct decisions had to be taken by the Government even if they will have a knock-on effect on hospitality and tourism.
Another sector that has had a knock-back in terms of its revenue falling is that of travel agents. They have had a tough time over the past 18 months. My understanding, and I have heard it from people in the industry, is there was a very positive meeting as late as yesterday relating to the supports. I spoke to one small business owner who employs 45 people. They said there is talk that they will have to be down by 50%. When I talked to them and colleagues of theirs, they said many of them are down by 46% or 47%, not quite 50%, but that is because they have driven their own businesses by taking steps such as offering takeaway or selling vouchers, which has helped to increase their revenue. Could the 50% figure be examined? It is crucial. While 50% seems a lot for a small business, if they were down by 46% or 47%, many of them would not be open if not for the supports. In the example of a small business I gave, that would be 45 jobs lost.
Finally, it is very positive that people who lost their jobs will be supported. These supports are to be welcomed and the announcement relating to rates will be of great benefit. Costs are increasing, not least because of the change to the minimum wage, which I welcome, as are costs relating to insurance and so on. The pause in the collection of rates for the first three months is certainly the correct message.
I welcome the Tánaiste. The Government's reaction to the Omicron variant makes a mockery of the idea of living with Covid. It slapped restrictions into place based on zero data, when the ink on the newspapers reporting the variant’s mere existence was not even dry, and the panic machine swung into overdrive. Common sense and critical thinking have not made their way into decision-making either.
Covid-19 certificates have been required for indoor dining since their inception. If additional restrictions are being reintroduced for these settings with the return of table service-only in bars with a maximum of six people to a table, with no multi-table bookings, that means that the Covid-19 certificate is not preventing the spread of the virus in them.
What does the Government do with these certificates? It expands them to gyms and leisure centres. Because we have developed the system we might as well use it. Does it work? Who knows? Who cares? We do not have the data on its effectiveness as a measure or on the effectiveness of practically any Covid-19 measure that the Government has introduced, no matter how often it is asked for this in this House or the other House.
It is goodbye to nightclubs again with 50% capacity for events which I am sure will make them uneconomic the unfeasible for many venues and artists to actually host or perform. Of course, since these venues are technically allowed, full supports do not have to be given to them.
The panic machine slapped tests back on to the menu for travellers in order to be seen to be doing something when it has been known for more than a year that community transmission is where effective protection begins and ends and no level of border policing will prevent the presence of Omicron in the country. This has been based upon, well, nothing really. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform has described the new measures as precautionary in nature saying that they will be lifted if the Omicron variant does not meet our worst fears. Is that really where the Government is at? Blanket restrictions have been imposed on the country based on our worst fears, which, of course, will never be realised.
The worst fears of NPHET has never been realised over the entire course of its time in the spotlight, despite the worst-case scenario depictions being the ones given all of the media attention. In fact, many times we did slightly better than the scenarios labelled as "optimistic", not that many media figures point that out. Those fears will be shown to be falsely based yet again with Omicron. Dr. Angelique Coetzee, chair of the South African Medical Association attested to this even as she identified the variant. She said that it was unfortunate that Omicron had been hyped as: “this extremely dangerous virus variant with multiple mutations” and that even unvaccinated patients with it “had only shown mild symptoms and recovered fully without hospitalisation”. Even as the science on the ground explicitly stated Omicron's presence was no reason for panicking, NPHET, the Government and the media decided, as they always do, to collectively lose their heads. I hope to God that the words of the Minister, Deputy McGrath, are true and that these restrictions will be lifted swiftly once we gain an accurate depiction of Omicron's profile.
The White House chief medical officer, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said that the signs of Omicron are encouraging regarding its severity based on the data that suggests that it may not be as bad as initially feared. A report from the South African Medical Research Council released last Saturday suggests that the strain could cause a milder infection. The main observation in the report was that most patients were not oxygen-dependent and most patients in Covid-19 wards were incidental Covid-19 patients having had another medical or surgical reason for admission to the hospital. A young fella, for example, breaks his leg, pops into the hospital after three days and develops a bit of a scratchy throat. Just like that, he is another young person hospitalised with Covid-19.
I digress as we are here to focus on trade and employment. It is very simple. Impacted businesses should be given the full supports they were ever given and this should not be seen as a case that lockdown by any other name should lead to this not happening. I would rather that those supports were not needed and that the businesses in our sectors that have been hit the hardest were not being asked again to take one for the team.
Finally, on the reintroduction of the PUP, this payment has been a lifesaver for so many workers who have been precluded from earning a living. It is also the case that there have been problems with the system even though that has been unpopular to point out. It cannot be the case that the Government is incentivising unemployment. I would appreciate it if the Tánaiste could address the systems that are in place to avoid situations whereby an individual may choose the PUP over employment.
Surely the Tánaiste can recognise that these restrictions in no way reflect any semblance of living with Covid? Instant recourse to economically-stifling measures is a blatantly unsustainable practice. Deputy McNamara put it best in the Lower House last week when he asked when is the end. Covid is not going to disappear overnight. If one cannot vaccinate 100% of the population, we will still have Covid in this country. What is the solution? Where is the plan? What we have now is no plan at all. The constant uncertainty for business and the cost of these restrictions is real money for SMEs. There is an uneven distribution of responsibility in the economy. Companies and businesses have huge HR issues and face mixed messaging and a lack of leadership. There is a massive gap between employees who are fearful and those who are revelling in further restrictions. It is okay for our bin men to empty our bins or for others to stack our shelves, but it is not okay to attend places of work. This creates massive inequality between people in different types of employment. We must get serious about living with Covid because we have put living on hold for long enough.
The Tánaiste is the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment. The current restrictions are in place until 9 January. I ask the Tánaiste to give a commitment here today that both Houses will be recalled should Omicron prove not to be as serious as initially thought, so that the restrictions can be lifted during recess. Recess runs from 17 December until mid-January. I would like the Tánaiste to make that commitment today. If we are needed back in the Chamber, we should be brought back.
I welcome the Tánaiste to the House. I wish to welcome the comments from the Government in general that these new restrictions can be removed quickly if we gather more information and data on Omicron and it emerges that it is not as threatening as originally feared. The Tánaiste, in his contribution, set that out.
We are all aware that the hospitality and live entertainment sectors have been hit harder than most throughout the pandemic. Unfortunately, that continues with the introduction of further restrictions today. Even prior to the restrictions being introduced, the public health messaging was having a severe impact on the sectors. I am sure all Members have been made aware by local business owners of how many events and Christmas parties have been cancelled and the general reluctance among people to go out and socialise. This is traditionally the busiest period of the year for businesses in the hospitality sector. It is this month that allows businesses to survive the quiet January and February period when very little happens. What is most important now is that effective supports are implemented as the sector seeks to get through this. As has been outlined, the Covid recovery support scheme, CRSS, currently requires a 50% fall in the income from 2019 levels for businesses to be eligible. This leaves the vast majority of businesses incapable of claiming support at a time when they desperately need to do so. For example, the owners of the Pilot Bar and restaurant in County Sligo stated yesterday that their income is down 40% compared with 2019 levels. With the changes to the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, their wage bill now makes up 58% of turnover. Naturally, anyone who has ever run a business knows that a wage bill of 58% of turnover is not sustainable. The situation is not good.
I say to the Tánaiste that the situation of the owners of that business is not unique. There are businesses up and down the country that are operating under similar pressures and facing uncertain futures due to the crisis that are not of their own making. If we want these businesses to survive and if we want to offer them the chance they deserve to rebuild, we must provide them with the supports to do so. When the decision was made to reduce the EWSS at the specific point in time last week, it was done on the assumption that there would be no restrictions in place. Unfortunately, the situation has altered since then and there are restrictions in place now. I think there is a broad understanding of the need for the Government to respond appropriately to changes during the pandemic, but when that is done, we must counter restrictions by providing supports for businesses that are impacted. The Government has stated that it will provide specific support measures for impacted sectors. In that respect, the criteria for the CRSS should be reduced. We must allow more businesses to claim support. The current criteria, which requires a 50% reduction in income from 2019 levels, should be altered to 25%. This would allow a greater number of businesses to claim the support they require.
One aspect that has not received much attention, or perhaps as much as it deserves, is the impact the pandemic has had on the loss of experienced staff, again particularly in terms of the hospitality and live events sector. Certainly in Galway city and county, a very large number of businesses have told me how many experienced and knowledgeable staff they have lost since March 2020. This is understandable because staff want certainty in employment. I put it to the Tánaiste that more than 250,000 people are working in the hospitality sector, as he is well aware.
I have also raised the mortgage issue with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath. There is an issue when it comes to couples drawing down mortgages if one of them is an employee working in the hospitality sector and if that business is receiving the wage subsidy scheme. This causes significant concern for people applying for a mortgage to try to get onto the ladder for the first time. We need to look at this.
People may not want to work for business where, due to external events, they may have to reduce their hours at short notice. In this context, I am referring to chefs, managers and front of house staff. Employees who are essential to the business are not easily replaced. During a pandemic these skilled and capable people are being offered greater certainty in other industries and, understandably, they are moving to those sectors. In Galway city, the medical device industry is employing a huge number of staff. While this is welcome, it is leaving the hospitality sector really struggling for chefs, managers, and front of house staff. There is an issue there and we need to take it on board. When such staff leave, these businesses are losing years of experience and know-how, and any new employee, no matter how capable, simply cannot replace this. It is not an issue for today or tomorrow but it has a long-term impact on the businesses. I suggest to the Tánaiste that we would look at a long-term task force for the sustainability of the hospitality sector. In Galway city, the hotels, restaurants and bars are under enormous pressure.
Members will be aware that at the start of 2021 the Government launched two free programmes that aimed to upskill employees in the hospitality sector. This was welcome and needed, but it needs to be expanded with a broader range of courses to provide employees across the hospitality and live events sector the opportunity to upskill and learn.
Again, as with other Members of the House, I welcome the reintroduction of the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP. I am aware from those I meet every day that nobody wants to go back on this payment again, but it is a welcome step given the introduction of the restrictions. Those who must go onto the payment obviously are doing so at the worst time of year with Christmas just a few weeks away. It is positive the Government has restored the full rate.
I note those places with live entertainment events planned over the next month are in a very difficult position. The sector was just beginning to get back on its feet after an extraordinarily difficult 18 months. As with the hospitality sector, the Christmas period is also the busiest for them throughout the year. I have been contacted by the organisers of shows, concerts and pantos who advise us they have already fully sold out many shows over the Christmas period. They have stated it is not economically viable for them to do shows at half capacity as they would be losing money. The announcement of an additional €25 million is very welcome for this sector. It certainly shows the Government's support.
I have a couple of brief questions for the Tánaiste on the wage subsidy scheme. As a person who operates a business, I am not fully clear about the reduction of 40% from €350 down to €203. I do not understand why it is not sector specific. I believe it defeats the logic of trying to keep people within the sector who have the skill set required and to link the employee to the employer. Can this be looked at again? It would help people to remain in the industry and it would also help people not to go onto the pandemic unemployment payment.
I referred to the problems around mortgage applications. It is relevant because young couples have contacted me where one of the partners is working in the sector. The couple certainly have the ability to get the mortgage, but over the past 18 months it has become an issue. For how much longer will this go on?
I would also ask for a response on the task force to look at the long-term viability of the hospitality sector.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. It is nice to see Deputy Varadkar in the House again. The Irish people care and worry a lot about Covid. They want to protect each other, as can be seen from our high vaccination rate. They are smart people. They do not need to be forced to do anything. They have embraced most of the public health advice. It is very important that we are very clear as to what we are asking them to do and why. That is one thing that we, as a Government, have failed to do. Our communications have left much to be desired. We have a three-party coalition but we need to speak with one voice on anything we are bringing to the public because the media and the Opposition love to tear us to shreds and divert attention from the important things we are asking people to do. It is important that we have one unified voice because there is sometimes some confusion. This is not necessarily always the Government's fault but, when we see leaks from people in NPHET or Cabinet, it is no wonder that people get confused. That is one thing I wanted to raise while the Minister is in the House. We need our communications to be much clearer and to speak with one voice as a coalition Government.
I also have a suggestion with regard to the entertainment sector. Millions of euro have been promised to support this sector, which has been shut down only a few weeks after being opened. As Senator Crowe has pointed out, businesses in this sector must operate at 50% capacity. As I suggested to the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, we should consider paying performers to perform twice. That way, the two 50% capacity audiences get to go to the event while the performer gets paid twice. I know that, in some instances, it is hoped the performer will do two performances for the price of one but that does not really cut the mustard if these performance fees are their bread and butter. That might be something to do. I do not know if the Minister has fully decided what to do with that money but those performers deserve to get paid twice to perform twice so that the whole audience can be embraced because we all need to be entertained nearly two years into this morbid situation in which nobody has wanted to be.
The Government has done pretty well overall. Loads of money has been thrown at every single sector while trying to figure out the best way to support them. We are a new Government and have never had a pandemic to deal with before so, all things considered, we are doing okay. The mixed messaging does not help. That is not all our fault but the people of Ireland are good at following public health advice. It is also good that we have good figures from the hospitals which show that half of Covid cases in those hospitals are among the unvaccinated 3%. That proves that the vaccinations are having an effect. That is definitely food for thought. Of course, we originally hoped the vaccinations would just stop us getting Covid but, from looking at the figures from the hospitals that feed into the advice from NPHET, it seems that the levels of ill health among those vaccinated, if they do get Covid, are much less than those among those who have not received the vaccine. That is also something we should be very clear about with people.
I keep hearing that Covid is our fault or that we do not care about people. Everybody in here really cares about the public and public health and wants the economy to recover. However, we are damned if we do open the economy and we are damned if we do not. It is quite difficult. Someone was harassing me on a radio station the other day and demanding to be told whether the schools would be closed in January. I do not have a crystal ball. None of us do. Hindsight is 20/20. Perhaps we could have done things differently. We definitely made some mistakes but, as a Government, we have not done too badly overall. We are a new three-party coalition. Perhaps that is why we need to look at our communications. If one communicates clearly with people, people will understand and do what is being asked of them.
The public health advisers base all of their decisions on physical health. We need to have some psychologists feeding into NPHET's advice as well because mental and physical health cannot be separated. We have to be able to convince people that these measures are the best thing for the nation's physical and mental health. We all know that the incidence of mental health issues has increased greatly as a result of Covid. As I said earlier, that is not the Government's fault but Covid's fault. However, at the same time, we need to consider the balance between mental and physical health. They are not separate things.
Every time the Government makes a decision, even on very simple things like asking children to wear masks in schools, we have to defend that decision. It was a pity they were told to wear masks only a day before they had to do it. Everybody needs time to adjust. That was a mistake. We should have given people a bit more time. If we are asking people to do things like this, we have to immediately tell them why.
Is it because so many cases are coming in that age group? If it is that serious an issue that we are making children aged nine to 12 wear masks, should we not consider closing the schools two and a half days early on Friday week? That would give the schools three full weeks without students in them. If it really is that big an issue in schools, instead of them all working to the half-day on the Wednesday, which is 22 December, perhaps we should consider not sending them to school for those two and a half days. I know they have missed many days already but if it is so serious in schools that we are making children aged nine to 12 wear masks, perhaps we should give schools three weeks off altogether. I might be killed for asking this question, but if it is so serious that we must make kids wear masks, should schools close so we can get three weeks to stop the rise in numbers? Clear communication is so important. The only way we will succeed is if we up our game as a unified voice on what we are doing and why we are asking people to do it. Sometimes I have to go searching for the reasons we are doing something and if I have to look for them, it cannot be easy for the public to find them either.
On a final note, I know we are talking about enterprise, trade and employment. There have been great supports for small to medium enterprises and the Tánaiste has done very well in that respect. I know in the budget there was a promise of good funding for the green for micro programme and for the digitalisation of businesses. I know local enterprise offices have done huge work in getting small businesses online. There has never been a more important time for everybody in the country and all of us as a Seanad and as a people to try, if at all possible, to support local businesses. We might not be able to afford everything locally but we should at least try to make some conscious effort because small businesses support local clubs and sponsor events. They need our money more than any big multinational that makes millions of euro.
I am repeating myself. This time last year I was saying we should not worry about Mr. Bezos getting enough money for his kids to go to Irish dancing classes or whatever but we must worry about our small businesses. It has never been more important for all of us as consumers to buy local. It has been said we will spend €5 billion this Christmas so could we please put as much of that as possible into the tills of small businesses? We should buy green as well because we are in a climate emergency as well as a health emergency.
This has not been an easy time for the Tánaiste, the Taoiseach or the leader of the Green Party, Deputy Eamon Ryan. At the same time, it is up to the three of them to be really professional and clear in their communication, with one voice. It is a really important message that I wanted to get across today. I thank the Tánaiste for his time in coming to the House today.
It is nice to see the Tánaiste. He is very welcome. To begin I will deal with those new restrictions announced on Friday. I will not play politics with Covid-19 and we should follow the science. I appreciate the fact the Cabinet has moved to provide supports that are very badly needed.
I have a couple of examples for the Tánaiste. I spoke to somebody in one of the major hotels in Limerick who told me ten big nights had been planned over Christmas and that has now been reduced to two. It is a huge impact and we all know many of these businesses are depending on Christmas trade in order to keep going and buy time, effectively, as we head into the new year. I also had the pleasure of being in west Cork a week and a half ago and saw an event there drop from 100 people to 30 people because of uncertainty. We can understand why the uncertainty occurs but it demonstrates again the impact on businesses. There has been a fair degree of frustration because of mixed messaging from the Government but I am not saying anything new in that regard. It was interesting to hear it put to me so strongly by somebody very much of a different political persuasion. It is important we put controls in place.
If people are on the PUP but did not manage to get back into the hospitality business, they would be on a lower payment. Now, if people lose a job because of the most recent announcements, they are on a higher rate of payment. The higher rate is correct but it is fundamentally unfair that one worker would have a reduced payment while another has the higher payment. Sinn Féin has argued for some time, as the Tánaiste knows, that we should maintain the PUP because of the degree of uncertainty out there. I would like to see the Tánaiste address that matter as it strikes me as extremely unfair that one worker could be on significantly less of a payment because he or she was not able to win back a job in the hospitality sector.
The Tánaiste gave quite a thoughtful speech so I want to be constructive and work through some of the key points he raised. I will hone in on the theme of an economic recovery plan and building a more inclusive economy with better conditions for workers. It is a theme I would certainly warm to. I will hit on some of the topics raised by the Tánaiste.
The first is the issue of sick pay. It is something that we were promised a year ago. We saw it in the joint committee on enterprise, trade and employment two weeks ago. It was a hell of a long time coming. Given the great crises we have seen across workplaces this year we really should have acted sooner. I am just worried about how much longer it is going to take us to get this Bill onto the floor of the Oireachtas and into law. The Tánaiste might let me know what his timeline is. I can assure him that our committee will not be a delaying factor.
I am concerned that the Bill as currently structured does not specify that move to ten days' leave over a number of years. It basically leaves it up to statutory instruments to bring that into being. I am concerned because that allows wriggle room to row back on the ten days. We have been an outlier on sick pay for an awful long time as the Tánaiste knows, in terms of our European colleagues. It is really important that we get that legislation in place, that it specifies a move to ten days' leave and that we see it implemented, rather than the next time we have a recession some Minister saying we cannot move ahead with it because it would be too risky. Every worker deserves a decent rate of sick pay. It is not something we should have to wait this long for. I would like to get a timeline from the Tánaiste on that point.
The Tánaiste's point about the living wage is welcome. However, so far this Government has moved the minimum wage up by just 40 cent in the first two budgets. It is on schedule to make an increase of just €1 over the lifetime of the Government if it continues at the rate it is going. In actual fact we are falling further behind the living wage, which has moved up to €12.90. The gap has increased under the current Government. What concrete steps is it going to take? We need a step change to ensure that people who work for a living are able to earn a living. That is not happening for too many workers at the moment. If we are going to build back better, and we often use that phrase, we need to see concrete actions to deliver that. One of those concrete actions is a step change in respect of the minimum wage moving to a living wage. If the Tánaiste has a timeline or plans for how he is going to change matters in that regard, I would really like to hear about them.
I am pleased to hear about the protection of tips Bill. I have been following it. The Tánaiste may be aware that my own Bill is still live. It cleared all Stages in the last Seanad. We really need to make sure the Government gets this right. There is a massive issue with tips in the hospitality sector. One in three workers were not getting their tips in the most recent research. Is the Government going to establish a legal right to tips for employees? That is what needs to happen. That is what my Bill will do. Is the Tánaiste going to deal with the scam that is service charges? There was a lot of research done on this and we know that far too many hotels and restaurants were charging service charges and not passing them on to employees. I need to understand what the legal consequences of the Tánaiste's proposed legislation will be to deal with that issue.
More fundamentally we have an issue in respect of low pay. We have one of the largest proportions of workers on low pay of any state in Europe. Figures ICTU referenced just after the budget indicated that 750,000 employees earned less than €400 per week in 2019, representing 31% of total class A PRSI employees. The budget did nothing in respect of that issue of low pay. If the Tánaiste is talking about better conditions for workers, he must be talking about better pay for workers. I want to understand the steps the Government is going to take to ensure that happens. There is one simple step it could take. I know the social partners, my colleagues in the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and my own union, SIPTU, have stressed the need to establish a statutory right to collective bargaining. If we allow workers to bargain for their pay they will bargain better pay and it will be better for everybody concerned and will be a much more equal and egalitarian society. It was very disappointing to note earlier this year that the Tánaiste wrote to the European Commission asking that the EU directive on minimum wages would not be binding. That directive contains a lot of proposals for increasing collective bargaining across the State. Has the Tánaiste changed his mind in that regard? There seems to be a growing wind of support for that minimum wage directive and I would like to know where the Tánaiste stands on it now. The best way to increase working conditions is to give workers a right to collective bargaining.
My last point has been raised a number of times by me and others. It falls under the enterprise category. We know that no one is safe until everyone is safe in respect of vaccines. We know that we need to see a waiver of intellectual property rights for these vaccines in order to let developing countries develop their own generic versions of those vaccines and get their populations vaccinated. In Africa at the moment just 4% of the population is vaccinated. To be frank, we have heard consistently that the Tánaiste is one of the key people in the Cabinet blocking the waiving of intellectual property rights which in turn is denying people vaccines.
The most recent horrifying figure is that we have had 5 million deaths in the developing world because of a lack of vaccines. I repeat that figure, 5 million deaths.
I respectfully ask the Tánaiste to change the Government's stance on dropping intellectual properties rights, allowing those rights to be waived in order that people in developing countries can get access to those vaccines and, hopefully, then we can move to a better stage. Otherwise we will go from variant to variant. It is extremely disappointing to see the Government aligned with big pharma and against the people of the world. Let us be clear, that is what the Tánaiste and his Government have been doing. I would like a positive response in that regard.
The Tánaiste is welcome to the House. It is hard to believe but here we are again, speaking about the reintroduction of restrictions to curb the spread of Covid-19. As we have seen on too many occasions throughout this pandemic, the road ahead is full of twists and turns. It is very upsetting. I recognise the need for the public health guidance and guidelines to help us in preventing the spread of Covid-19 in our communities. I know how important it is particularly as we head into the winter months. We need to move from reactive to proactive decision-making to ultimately provide a greater level of certainty and predictability to Irish society than has been seen throughout the pandemic so far.
As my Seanad colleagues will be aware, I came to politics later in my working life. My true professional background is in music and live entertainment. This is a trade that took me a long time to learn. I dedicated most of my life to it. Like my friends, colleagues and family in the industry, I possess a unique insight about the impact of the pandemic on the lives and livelihoods of people working in music and entertainment. As I noted in the Chamber many times, the music and live entertainment industries have shouldered a greater burden during this pandemic than have most others. There is no denying that. The industry is literally on its knees. If we do not assist the industry in getting back on its feet to provide the support to ensure a long-term vitality and vibrancy, it will be a true loss to Irish society, culture and identity.
Last Friday evening we received word of the latest public health restrictions, many of which are likely to disproportionately impact the music and entertainment industry. Prior to that announcement, however, the situation for musicians and the entertainment sector had already been deteriorating for some time. On 22 October, after 589 days of closure, the music and entertainment sector reopened, albeit with restrictive measures in place. Reopening the industry was not a matter of just flicking a switch. For many people employed in music and entertainment it was a cautious and very measured process. Within a few weeks of the reopening public health advice was updated, encouraging people to reduce their social contacts. The midnight curfew was introduced soon after. Although this did not explicitly affect gigs and shows taking place before midnight, it did have an impact on the public's attitude and awareness and ticket sales reduced immediately and cancellations followed shortly after that. As the weeks progressed, the public health advice became more explicit, in that Christmas parties might be a bad idea, children should not attend seasonal activities such as the pantomime outside school and people ought to spend less time in high-risk environments. The general public headed the public health advice, and rightly so. However, audiences reduced to a point where gigs simply were not viable. At the beginning of last week, gigs, shows, concerts and events were being cancelled across the board. Musicians had their December diaries completely wiped out. The restrictions announced last Friday then formally sealed the fate of this industry for the foreseeable future with the repercussions to be felt well into 2022.
The pandemic unemployment payment has thankfully reopened for applications and workers in this sector who had returned to work in the interim should now be able to avail of this lifeline but the industry and the people working in it need more than a lifeline.
We need to show the industry the respect it deserves instead of consistently asking it to take one for the team. Musicians and entertainers have sacrificed their livelihoods for the greater good of the country but the sentiment within the industry now is that musicians and entertainers feel the need to beg to ensure access to the basic supports they have been promised by the Government. This is what really upsets me. The phrase "they will not be found wanting" has been used ad nauseam but the lived reality for musicians and entertainers tells a completely different story. I am inundated with stories from musicians and entertainers contacting me along with other people working in the industry. It is really upsetting.
A young man contacted me yesterday who has a young family and a mortgage to pay and is panicking about Santa Claus and getting presents. He got a phone call to say that his gigs were cancelled coming up to Christmas. One can imagine the anxiety, stress and impact of that from a financial point of view along with the impact on mental health. He went to ask about the PUP. It is degrading. This is a man who is highly qualified and has spent years training to be a musician - more so than college. He had to go in yesterday and ask whether he was entitled to the PUP. He was told to prove that his gigs were cancelled and had to walk back out, go back to his employer, who is also a musician, and ask for a letter proving his gigs were cancelled. It is horrendous. It is so degrading. I remember many years ago when I was a separated mother with two very small children and had to walk in to ask for supports. It is degrading to walk in there. I never went back because I was treated like dirt. That is what is happening to musicians today who are trying to get a few bob to pay their bills. It is shocking. The culture relating to the arts and entertainment industry needs to change from a policy perspective.
In addition to those signed off on the PUP, there are others who have been subject to PUP cuts. Other workers were taken off the PUP and advised to seek jobseeker's allowance or PTSE. Those same workers, who were forced off the PUP, cannot reapply for it. Those who are in receipt of the lower rates and have no work because of the restrictions and the public health advice will not receive the higher rate. The PUP has been the only constant source of income for workers in this sector over the past 20 months, but now even those who adhered to the rules while on the PUP feel they are being punished further. I hear from people in the industry that the anxiety is as bad as it was when restrictions were introduced in March 2020, but the climate today is really different. The pandemic has taken its toll emotionally, financially and mentally and people's resilience is at an all-time low.
The Music and Entertainment Association of Ireland, MEAI, which does a phenomenal job of being the voice for those who have no voice, warned in August that a reopening plan had to find a balance between employment opportunities and financial support. The reopening plan was too optimistic and did not make provisions for the situation in which we now find ourselves. Workers find themselves within three weeks of Christmas with no work and, in many cases, no support so it is imperative that the full rate of the PUP at €350 per week is restored for all workers in the music and entertainment industry who have been affected by these latest restrictions and recent public health messaging. We cannot continue to ask musicians and entertainers to take one for the team. It is time to demonstrate to our musicians and entertainers that we value the contributions they make to Irish life and our culture and identity. They deserve this respect and so much more.
When the Tánaiste was Taoiseach, he attended a corporate event attended by a young musician with whom I worked very closely. The then Taoiseach spoke to musicians for 20 minutes. They could not believe that he went up to talk to them. They could not believe that he took time out of his busy schedule to do this. There were 200 or 300 people at that event.
He was the only one to approach them. He knows how to treat musicians and others with respect. All I ask is that that happens from the top, from a cultural policy perspective, and that musicians are treated with the respect and dignity they deserve.
I thank the Tánaiste for coming before the Seanad to take these statements. I share the concerns of others about the impact of the new measures on the tourism and hospitality sector. In Wexford an estimated 9,700 people are directly employed by the sector. Those who run businesses have made it very clear that they are very appreciative of the supports the Government has put in place to ensure that businesses are kept afloat and that people continue to be employed. However, I have been talking to owners and managers of hotels and bars, as have my colleagues here, and they tell me that restaurant bookings, particularly group bookings, are being cancelled, that all Christmas parties and other such occasions have been cancelled and that hotel occupancy is down, partially because there is a fear on the part of consumers of travelling and attending such events. People are rightly being cautious, but that has serious implications for those businesses. Everyone has spoken about how they have played their part. I encourage the Tánaiste to ensure that the EWSS is restored in order to allow those businesses to survive over December, January and February. I hope that we will start to see in the spring a recovery and that the Omicron variant will not be as serious as had been feared.
I strongly endorse Senator Black's comments. There has been enormous sacrifice on the part of those who are involved in the arts and entertainment sector. I will add to her comments by referring to the impact on theatres, specifically amateur and community theatres, and the announcements that were made last Friday. Senator Cummins and I raised this as a Commencement matter this morning. I know that Senator Carrigy and other colleagues have also raised it. I refer to the decision on Friday to reduce capacity to 50% in theatres. People were given literally a couple of days' notice to plan for this change. How can you suddenly decide, for pre-sold shows over the coming months, which 50% will get to attend the show and which 50% will not? Theatres are faced with the financial challenge of either determining that the show will go ahead, thereby losing all the money that has to be refunded to people, or deciding to cancel the show and losing probably an even greater sum. Theatres and venues, for the most part, and pantos and other productions cannot operate at less than 70% to 80% capacity. Anyone here who has been to a theatre recently will know they are among the safest venues you can go to. Your Covid certificate and ID are checked and there is sanitation everywhere. I have had my temperature checked on occasion going into them. It is just completely unfair. It shows a lack of understanding on the part of the Cabinet to simply announce that on Tuesday those decisions have to be made.
I wish to talk about the amateur and community sector. There are also people employed there. We are talking about professional choreographers, directors, set designers and musicians who are employed for all these productions. There are the pre-Christmas productions, which are now in chaos and are trying to do what they can. Equally, as we all know, particularly for panto season, people are looking into January. People are now making financial commitments and they do not know what the situation will be. Certainty has to be provided. In addition, we must have support for those community organisations and sole traders working in our communities. A lot of those community organisations will die if the current regime continues without the necessary financial supports put in place.
Finally, during this period we have seen a technological revolution. There has been a lot more use of digital. It is important we learn from that and the impact it has had on business and trading. I will make two points in that regard. Bank of Ireland published a very interesting survey two weeks ago. It pointed out that, year on year, the increase in online expenditure by teenagers was 184% and by those aged 18 to 25 years of age was 40%. We know there is a lot more use of cards and so on, but there has been a dramatic shift to online expenditure. We have to ensure that our businesses are equipped to be able to avail of that business.
The other big concern I have, and I am not convinced the Government is facing up to it sufficiently, is the area of cybercrime. Last month, Grant Thornton estimated the economic cost of cybercrime last year was €9.6 billion. I know there is a commitment in the national development plan to increase staff in the National Cyber Security Centre from 25 to 70. We know cybercrime is on the rise. Coming out of the pandemic it is essential that we have a national targeted strategy to address it.
I understand Senator Kyne wishes to share time.
I will share time with Senators Dolan and McGahon.
Senators Dolan and McGahon will have one and a half minutes each. It will be great practice for them if they wish to go for the European Parliament.
I welcome the Tánaiste. I acknowledge the level of spending that is estimated by the Department of Finance that will be spent by the end of 2022, which is €48 billion. This is an astounding amount but absolutely necessary to support these businesses. We must remember of course that it is businesses, workers, entrepreneurs, corporations and everybody who has contributed to them. We are able to borrow this from the European institutions on the basis of our good name and reputation and the work we have done to balance the books in recent years.
As we all have, I have been approached in recent days since the announcements were made in the middle of last week, and even after the supports were announced last Friday, by hoteliers, restaurateurs and those involved in the hospitality sector in particular. They are considerable supports through the enhanced CRSS, the very welcome waiver of commercial rates until the end of March and the Covid contingency fund. We understand the reason behind the decision not to restore the EWSS payments to pre-November rates but there is concern. I am sure the Government would have preferred a sectoral approach because it would have been simpler. It would certainly be easier to explain and would provide the certainty necessary for these very important sectors. Businesses in Galway city, Connemara and elsewhere in Galway knew where they were prior to this and they expected to have a good Christmas period. This has been taken away from them because of the omicron variant. The Government will be continuously reviewing these and I ask the Minister to keep it under review when examining the possibility of changes to the EWSS.
I welcome the Tánaiste to the Seanad. I have spoken to retail businesses in counties Roscommon and Galway. They have welcomed the supports over the past year and eight months, particularly the restart grant. It is good to hear about the commercial rates waiver for local authorities until March 2022. Everywhere we see people looking to shop local. There has been an investment of more than €9 million in Roscommon town. A team has been cleaning the brand-new civic square in recent weeks getting ready for Christmas. We need to make the towns in Roscommon and Galway places to live and work with a great quality of life. Today we have had the announcement of Ballinasloe as the first stop in the west on the Galway to Athlone, if not the Moscow to Galway, cycleway. Ballinasloe will be up there on a global setting. At a very basic level, this type of investment in our towns and villages means safe places to walk and cycle in towns with no parks or footpaths. I hope many people are listening to us today. I ask them why not consider moving west and working remotely and having a great quality of life.
Last weekend, Grow Remote in Ballinasloe held a festive heritage walking tour of the town to showcase the region. A local pub, An Táin, was willing to provide hotspots to customers to be grow remote friendly. It is good to hear about the legislation on right to request remote working. Our towns are working hard to attract people to work remotely in their areas. I thank the Minister and we will speak again on some of these points.
My whole thing in this debate over the past year is about perspective. I keep using the word time and again. On occasions, perspective is lost in the whole debate. The perspective is that we are performing at the most optimistic levels of where NPHET said we would be a number of weeks ago.
The perspective is that this time last year, we did not have the use of vaccines, antigen tests or boosters. I refer to the communication strategy of the Government in recent days. It is perfectly acceptable, and it is the intelligent and smart thing to do, to make sure that those who are in scientific positions in this country are on the same pages as the Ministers and politicians of this country and that there is no confusion. I take this opportunity to say, from a personal point of view, that the irony was certainly not lost on me when elements of the media were criticising the Government for a mix-up in communications, when elements of the media played fastest finger first on Twitter in the past year and a half, which definitely added to the miscommunication and confusion.
The irony is certainly not lost on me in relation to that issue.
The Tánaiste is welcome to the House to speak about this important subject that has an impact on many whom we represent around the country. Despite what a colleague said earlier, there has been absolutely no lack of leadership in relation to the Government. Many difficult decisions had to be made and will continue to be made. The emphasis from the Government and Government parties at all times has been about saving lives and livelihoods.
I spoke to many business owners in south Kildare in the aftermath of last Friday's announcement. While many of them absolutely appreciate the importance and intent of the measure, there is no doubt that they are incredibly disappointed, as of course we all are. I refer, in particular, to the local county hotels that mean so much in our provincial towns, such as The Keadeen Hotel, Newbridge and Clanard Court Hotel, Athy, that are a lifeline and provide employment and tremendous services to the communities within which they serve. This is a complete body blow to such hotels. There is no doubt that Covid is continuing to cause a significant disruption to all our lives but we are as dependent on each other's actions and personal responsibilities now as we were in March 2020.
I am concerned with how divisive and combative the debate and chatter around Covid has become. The Government is doing its utmost to keep Irish people safe while trying to balance economic, social and educational liberties. I know it is a difficult job for the Government to find that balance. The NPHET advice does not leave much room for manoeuvring. No politician wants to be the bearer of bad news but, unfortunately, the Government cannot control the transmission or mutation of the virus and therefore must react swiftly when a new variant, such as Omicron, comes to light. Covid is the enemy; not those who come up with policies and regulations and who try to enforce them. We need to do everything we can to reunite our families, friend and communities behind the implementation of public health advice, be that in terms of vaccination, social distancing or mask wearing. The combative narratives we see and hear and the negative framing of issues are sowing the seeds of division within our society. We do not need that and it must be tackled. There is a responsibility on all public representatives to do that.
Many years ago, I worked really hard with others to get a county arts centre in Kildare, based in Newbridge and we were lucky enough to have Riverbank Arts Centre established in Newbridge, which is in a central part of our town. It has been devastating, over the past 20 months, to see the lights off and to see it closed. Last Friday night, I was lucky to visit it to see our local amateur drama group. It was a pleasure to see so many people enjoying being on stage and behind the scenes, in addition to many punters like me who were there to support the arts. I know the reintroduction of restrictions is absolutely devastating for this sector. They will need many sectoral supports to remain viable; of that I have no doubt. Senator Black spoke eloquently about the issues and challenges faced, as did my colleague, Senator Malcolm Byrne. The arts have been severely impacted by the pandemic and they represent a fundamental section of our culture.
We are proud in Ireland to be home to such a thriving and internationally acclaimed arts sector ranging from singers to dancers, actors, the orchestra and the opera. These people are devastated to see their livelihoods dwindle away once again. Unfortunately, we have heard ignorant comments such as "get another job" or "get a real job". I want to be clear in the House that we appreciate their phenomenal contribution to Irish society. We are proud that our artistes have chosen to showcase their talents within this country. I, for one, will do everything in my power to represent the arts sector and ensure that adequate supports are made available, thus ensuring there is no brain drain from our arts and culture sector. I speak also about the smaller youth theatres, performing arts schools and local amateur groups.
I commend my Government colleagues, including the Tánaiste, for the swift action they have taken to reinstate financial supports, especially the pandemic unemployment payment. I am glad the PUP is more targeted than it was. I appreciate the adjustments to the Covid restrictions support scheme to support businesses whose trade is significantly impacted. I also welcome the extension of the rates waiver.
Tomorrow is the big shopping day of 8 December. I ask people to shop local because every €10 spent locally is worth €40 in one's local community.
The next speaker is Senator John Cummins. It is my understanding that he wishes to share time with Senator Carrigy.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I propose that Senator Carrigy and I both speak for two and a half minutes.
I join with colleagues in welcoming the Tánaiste to the House. Exceptional times call for exceptional measures. There is no question that this Government and its predecessor, which the Tánaiste led, have put unprecedented supports in place since the onset of this pandemic. Schemes like the temporary wage subsidy scheme, the employment wage subsidy scheme, the Covid restrictions support scheme, rates waivers, restart grants, the pandemic unemployment payment, tailored schemes like the small business assistance scheme for Covid and the events sector Covid support scheme have been critical lifelines to businesses. They have sustained hundreds of thousands of jobs across the State.
I want to focus on the live theatre and events sector, which some colleagues have referenced. I note the comments made by the Tánaiste in his contribution that further supports will be required in this space. I probably sound like a broken record given that I tabled a Commencement matter to which the Minister of State at the Department of Rural and Community Development, Deputy Joe O'Brien, responded this morning and raised this matter during the Order of Business.
I am very concerned about local producers, not-for-profit organisations and community groups. This morning I referenced the Waterford Panto Society, which has a sold out run of 26 shows at the Theatre Royal, and the producers of A Christmas Carol at Garter Lane Arts Centre. These groups have bravely decided to continue with their productions even in the face of a 50% reduction in capacity. Not only do they face a logistical nightmare of choosing which 50% of their audience get to see their shows, they face the substantial losses of €47,000 and €25,000, respectively, as a direct result of the capacity limit. This situation is replicated across the country. I am fearful that if we do not support these local community organisations now they will not exist next year to put on much-loved productions at this time of year. I urge the Tánaiste to engage with his Cabinet colleague, the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin, as I know that he has done already, in terms of supporting these sectors. I am not for one second saying that we should not support the professional sector. Yes, we should but we must support the local community organisations if they are to exist this time next year.
I welcome the Tánaiste and I will read a short excerpt from his introduction. He said:
Since the outbreak of Covid-19 here in March 2020, the Government has sought to save as many lives and as many livelihoods as possible. ... We have sought to keep workers connected to their employers and on the payroll. We have sought to help businesses survive through a robust and sustained programme of financial support from the Government.
After 18 months going through Covid, that is what this Government and the previous Government have done. On behalf of the businesspeople in my home county of Longford, I thank the Tánaiste for his leadership, the support those business have received through the past 18 months and the proposed support for the coming months.
In the past week, there have been many discussions regarding the hospitality sector, including hotels, and the new restrictions that are being proposed. I welcome the supports that have been put in place. On the tourism end of things, the advent of Omicron has led to cancellations by many inbound visitors who had planned to travel here in the coming months. A significant number of schemes were in place to provide financial assistance for strategic tourism businesses such as visitor attractions, outdoor activity providers, coach operators and golf courses. All those schemes are now closed and I ask that the Cabinet consider reactivating some of them in order to have them in place early in the new year.
I concur with the comments of Senator Cummins in respect of theatre and pantomimes. I am involved in Longford's Traditional Panto group. We had sold out shows but are now facing into an extremely difficult period. We cannot access the scheme announced two weeks ago as a result of the requirement relating to a minimum operating cost of €150,000. We are in a very difficult position and are pushing ahead and adding extra shows but we will not break even if we do not receive supports. I support the call of Senator Cummins for extra supports.
Significant supports have been made available in the context of online purchasing in the past 18 months. As Senator O'Loughlin stated, the big purchasing days are coming. I appeal to those buying online in the run-up to Christmas to do so from Irish businesses and to buy local.
Like many other Senators, I welcome the Tánaiste to the House. I acknowledge his role, along with the Taoiseach, the Minister, Deputy Ryan, and the wider Government, in trying to assist many people in business and employees in what I have described to the House on many occasions as extraordinary times, not ordinary times.
Before I speak about the hospitality and entertainment sector, despite the difficulties we have, it is very important to acknowledge the financial assistance that has been made available. In the course of three years, €48 billion has been laid out to support various sectors. The employment wage subsidy scheme has provided more than €5.5 billion in payments to employers and employees to date and €877 million has been foregone in PRSI payments. Of course, importantly, the EWSS will remain in place until April 2022. I acknowledge that many of us would like to tweak that scheme for businesses at the moment, but I am sure the Tánaiste might have some reference to make in that regard when he is summing up. As all present are aware, the number of employers on the EWSS has reduced, but it is now apparent that more people or businesses will probably be in need of it again.
Payments to date under the Covid restrictions support scheme have amounted to €704 million. The business resumption support scheme has been significant. Some 32% of registrants for the scheme were wet pubs, while 26% were other bars, restaurants, hotels or other accommodation providers. That reflects clearly the trouble the industry is in. More than 98,000 businesses have availed of Revenue debt warehousing. That is an important point. Several Members have mentioned the rates waiver. I acknowledge the latest announcement by the Government that the rates waiver will now apply for the first three months of 2022. It is very important and significant.
Like Senators Black, Malcolm Byrne and many others, I have grave concerns in respect of the entertainment and hospitality sector. The Tánaiste may correct me on this but I think I have the right figure. I looked up data on this last night. From memory, the hospitality and entertainment sector was worth approximately €5.18 billion in 2018.
That is a very significant contribution to the running of our economy. One cannot even begin to think of the sector continuing to decline. Like Senator Black, I have several links to the entertainment business and have had down through the years. Our musicians and those who back them are in a lot of bother. As others have said, they, along with those in the hospitality sector, acknowledge the support given by the Government, but the reality of the entertainment business now is that nothing will recommence until late spring. Even at that stage, it will involve a whole rebuilding programme and take a long time. We should also remember that the entertainment sector is very much linked to the hospitality sector. Music weekends in hotels throughout the country are worth a fortune to the country and employ many people.
The latest restrictions have cut capacity in half, so it is a shutdown. The EWSS needs to be strengthened again, basically to keep staff. Following the most recent lockdown, many hotels and restaurants found their staff were gone and they had to go hunting for staff again. We cannot allow that to happen again. The capacity limit of six per table means extra staff are needed in hotels and restaurants. There is to be no service at the counter in hotels and bars and, therefore, extra staff are also needed for this reason.
It is important that through whatever is announced in the coming days, which I am confident will be important, we ensure the EWSS will be back where it was for the coming weeks and months. I hope the new variant will not be as dangerous as was first thought. Maybe we will be able to lift the restrictions a lot quicker than we thought.
All in all, it is a challenging position for the Government. It is important that, in all the debates, we lay out what the Government has done, but there is no doubt that there is a challenge. I am deeply concerned about the hospitality and entertainment sectors.
I welcome the Tánaiste to the Seanad. Someone must have sat in my seat because the pen here states, "Vote Leo Varadkar No. 1". I hope that is not an omen. I did not bring that in here; someone left that here.
It states, "Vote Emer Currie No. 2"
Anyway, Miriam Lord might have a giggle about that on Saturday. That is a challenge to her.
The Minister is always very welcome here. It is great to see him here. He is the Tánaiste at the end of the day, and that is important, as is his being present to listen and engage. Communication is a two-way process. It is both internal and external. Sometimes we get lost communicating to each other in this little bubble in the Oireachtas, but the reality is that these are unprecedented times. We must follow the science and expert advice. Let us not rubbish the expert advice. Nobody here wants to close down anyone's business, nightclub or theatre but we must follow the science and advice.
I apologise for not being here earlier. I was at a meeting of the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government. It is important to discuss communication. There has been some speculation on whether NPHET and other bodies will be closed down or restricted in their communication. I do not subscribe to that. It is important, however, that we have clarity of message because the problem is that we are getting mixed messages across government and business and from the health sector. People are right to call into question how we are communicating with the citizens outside this House. It is not an easy task. I do not believe or suggest the Government is trying to close down anyone, but the messaging must be consistent in its clarity. There should be no ambiguity. People are expecting clear and, in many cases, harsh messages in the next few days. They realise that tough decisions must be taken. On the whole, they are with the Government. To be fair, I believe they are. These are difficult times. I am aware of many businesses that are very grateful for the help and very appreciative of the rate waivers. This is important. The assistance is going to keep the businesses barely ticking over but they will hopefully be ready to kick up again and recapture some of their business, support and trade. That is important. Local authorities must pay their bills too and operate their municipal districts. That is important. Local authorities are being compensated through rates, so we need to get that message out.
My message is that we should keep the messages clear. Let us have consistency of message across the tripartite Government. That is a challenge in itself in a coalition Government. My final appeal is to spend more time focusing on youth unemployment, young people who have done so much, and young people who feel isolated and left aside because of the pandemic. They feel that some have suggested they were signing on for payments, ducking and dodging, and did not want to face work again. That is far from the truth for most of them. They want to be out working and to make a contribution. That is important to note. Young people have been left behind, however. These have been tough times for them. We must never lose sight of that.
I will not allow this opportunity, when we are talking about Covid, to pass without offering yet again a clear message of support to the health workers, the staff who work in our hospitals and services, put out the bins, push the trolleys and care for those who have fallen victim to the pandemic. The victims are sick and, in many cases, fighting for their lives. We owe a debt of gratitude to the staff who have worked in the health services on the back and frontlines for what they have done for our country. None of us in this room takes that for granted. None of us will ever forget. It must always be to the fore of our thoughts and good wishes. The staff in question have put their lives on the line for us.
I acknowledge what the Government has done in reviewing the position of undocumented people who have come to this country, sacrificed so much and left so much behind. Many of them are in our health services and have kept us going during Covid.
I thank the Tánaiste for his time and for engaging with the Members of the Seanad today.
I welcome the Minister to the House. As he knows, there is a storm hitting County Clare now. It is at its peak as we speak. I hope Lahinch will be spared the drumming it got back in 2014, simply because of the €12 million invested by a Fine Gael-led Government in the rock armoury. We are now in a far better position to weather the storm than we were. The lesson is that Ireland is an island nation. Investing in coastal protection is necessary. In this regard, we need to think in terms of investing billions rather than millions of euro to ensure the beautiful seaside resorts throughout the country are protected when conditions deteriorate, as at present. I wish all the people who are now battling the weather the very best.
In Lahinch, the €2.7 million the previous Government provided to Lahinch Seaworld is being spent. I hope we will have a state-of-the-art facility for the people who come to visit the town. The €500,000 the Minister provided when he was Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport in 2013 saved the facility, which was about to close at the time. Therefore, we have a lot to celebrate. We are now in a better position as we move towards the end of the pandemic, but there are challenges. There are businesses that were established in 2019. A café in Ennis that was established in mid-November 2019 and that was doing exceptionally well now finds that, because it did not open two weeks earlier, it is not getting supports.
Some tweaking will need to be done to support those people. They are in a position where they will be operating at 50% capacity. We do not want any business to close. We have provided billions of euro through the EWSS, the PUP and various other schemes that have kept businesses with a sign over the door in order that when we move past this dreadful disease, they will be able to trade, rebuild and contribute to our society with the offering our country gives to both the people who visit us and those who live here. Thousands of businesses are being sustained and will be able to rebuild into the future because of these Government supports.
I spoke to somebody with a business on one of the Canary Islands and he told me all that businesses there got was a waiver of rates. They got no supports worth talking about in the same way supports have been provided for in this country. That was made possible by the prudent management of our economy from 2011 until 2020. Whether people like to hear that or not, if we had not had a rainy day fund or been in a position where we balanced our books in 2019, we would not now be in the position to borrow billions of euro, as we did correctly when this pandemic hit.
We can learn from recent history about how to manage our economy and economic affairs. We do not want to see idle promises in a 1977-type scenario in the course of the next general election and having an awful position after that general election. People must be aware that we could act as we did because our economy was managed properly when Fine Gael was in government.
I dtús báire, ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an Tánaiste. Gabhaim mo bhuíochas agus ár mbuíochas leis as an méid atá déanta aige ar son muintir na hÉireann, gnóthaí na hÉireann agus tionscal na hÉireann chun tacaíocht a chur in áit dóibh ionas go mbeidh siad ann tar éis na srianta, ionas go mbeidh siad in ann níos mó gnó a dhéanamh, agus an-tábhachtach a bhaineann leis sin ionas go mbeidh an geilleagar in ann teacht chuige féin mar a tháinig le déanaí freisin.
I do not know if the Tánaiste had the opportunity to read the article written by Mr. Stephen Collins for The Irish Times last Friday about a book by Mr. Mark Henry called In Fact: An Optimist's Guide to Ireland at 100. It is an important article, primarily pointing out how pessimism is damaging our approach to things. The headline is "Narrative of failure has become so all-pervasive that it is a threat to our future". I agree with much of what was mentioned in the article. Mr. Collins, for example, wrote about a UN study that put Ireland second in the world to Norway in a range of metrics to assess quality of life here. Pessimism has reached an all-time low in the course of this debate, where one Sinn Féin Senator appears to have insinuated that the Tánaiste alone is responsible for the deaths of thousands of people in the developing world, notwithstanding the fact that Ireland is one of the most significant per capita contributors of vaccines to the developing world. So let us not start with how bad everything is because we know things are bad. I have people ringing me every day telling me how awful it is just listening to "Morning Ireland" each day because there is nothing but a narrative of negativity.
We have in fact done incredibly well. We have one of the most generous schemes to support businesses, employees and people in general in the European Union, if not the world. This does not mean everything is rosy in the garden or we have done everything right. It does, however, mean we should give credit where it is due for a job well done. I acknowledge that to the Tánaiste in the first instance in this debate, although I agree with other Senators who have raised concerns. I know the Tánaiste is aware of them because I raised them with him personally. In fairness, he has always responded positively and effectively because I know he understands them too.
I recognise that my time is up, so I will conclude by saying that we have made enormous progress and we have in place an incredibly effective system. It is not perfect and of course it lets down certain people. Other Senators have referenced sectors that will suffer in particular. We should also recognise the enormous contribution the Government has made in incredibly difficult times.
After a record number of excellent contributions, it is my pleasure to call on the Tánaiste to respond.
I thank Senators for their contributions. Storm Barra was mentioned at the outset and the Government has been informed that a number of businesses incurred water and wind damage as a consequence of the storm. Most companies will be covered by their insurance but where companies were not able to get insurance, they will be eligible for financial aid from my Department. We have restructured that scheme, which was previously run through the Red Cross and the Department of Defence; it has been transferred to my Department and it will be run by local enterprise offices in each county. It will funded through my Department. We will open that scheme in the coming days and certainly no later than Tuesday next week if it is required.
I have heard the comments of Senators today on the EWSS and also from the hospitality and entertainment sectors, where there is a strong preference that we restore the scheme to the rate paid in November. There is a difficulty in this. More than half the businesses and jobs supported by the EWSS are not in the hospitality, arts or events sectors but sectors that have not been affected by the reimposition of restrictions. These include construction, retail, administration and education. Ideally, we would like to make the EWSS sector-specific but the Minister for Finance and the Revenue Commissioners have told me that cannot be done. I told them to double-check that and come back to me as I do not want to find it can be done all of a sudden. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, and the Revenue Commissioners are still working on that possibility as it stands. The current advice is it cannot be done on a sectoral basis. We do not want to give most of the money to companies that do not really need it or companies that need to have that financial support wound down over the next few months.
There is a bigger picture here that people should acknowledge. The performance of the Irish economy varies from sector to sector but in the round it has been extraordinary. The budget deficit this year will be a fraction of what we thought it would be. There are 2.4 million people at work in Ireland now, almost as many as before the pandemic. We are facing labour shortages across the economy and more business people are telling me they cannot get staff than the opposite. My Department is facing a major backlog of work permit applications because we have seen a surge in applications for work permits; not only can employers not find staff here, but they cannot even find them in Europe. They now have to go beyond the European Union and the European Economic Area to find staff. That is the broader context in which we operate. We must ensure that if we are to give wage supports to any companies, they go to the companies that need it and not just across the board. That would not make sense for reasons Senators will understand.
If we cannot use the EWSS on a sectoral basis, we will use the CRSS on a sectoral basis to target those companies, businesses and workers that are now adversely affected by these restrictions. We are examining the €5,000 cap, which is far too low for medium to large companies. We get that and we know the EWSS does not have a cap. The 50% turnover rule is not going to work, particularly because of the distorting effect of December. We are aware the figure of 30% was used for the EWSS. The Minister, Deputy Donohoe, is examining all this now and I hope he will be in a position to make an announcement tomorrow. It may require primary legislation but I am thankful the Finance Bill is currently before the Seanad, where it can be amended to provide for such a provision. It may well be that we need to use the Seanad to do this in the next couple of days. If not, we may be able to do it in the new year.
Even beyond that we will need some sectoral schemes. The Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin, and I are working together on a few possibilities, including reopening the live performance support scheme and the events sector scheme, as well as some bespoke tourism schemes. We are making some good progress on that.
I took note of Senator Keogan's remarks on Covid-19 and I hear what she is saying. I welcome a debate on these matters and I do not like to see people browbeaten in any sort of debate on these matters. We have had to change our mind and strategy with Covid-19 so many times that we should never discount the possibility we might need to do so again. We are all still learning around the world about the right approach to Covid-19. Any country that appears to be doing the best in the world will find that within six weeks it will not be. This tells us we still do not know the right approach to dealing with Covid-19. It is only when the pandemic is over and we can look back at what worked and what did not that we will really know for sure. We are just trying to make the best decisions with the best advice and information available.
The science on this is changing and I try to keep an open mind on such things, facilitating critical thinking on Covid-19 strategies. People may come to me saying they want to impose new restrictions and these may cause a business to close, people to lose their jobs or individuals or families to have their freedom reduced.
I will always ask questions. I will always ask for evidence. I will always ask whether there are alternatives. While some people may be critical of me for doing so it is a good thing that we have people in government, and it certainly is not just me, who will ask the questions, look for evidence, ask for alternatives and will need to be convinced of the facts before we agree to imposing restrictions that affect people's lives, businesses, jobs and freedoms.
With regard to the Covid pass and vaccine passes, there is good evidence that they have worked. At the very least they have encouraged more and more people to get vaccinated. I am not sure we would have reached so high a level of vaccination as 93% or 94% were it not for the Covid pass system. There is good evidence that countries that have it have higher levels of vaccination. At the very least, it has worked on this level if it has not, perhaps, been as effective as we hoped in terms of transmission. It has certainly been effective in encouraging people to get vaccinated. We see people who are not yet vaccinated still coming to get vaccinated for the first time and this is encouraging.
With regard to the pandemic unemployment payment, at its peak 650,000 people were in receipt of the payment. This has reduced to approximately 60,000 or 65,000. Nine out of ten people who needed the payment are back at work and it is important that we acknowledge that fact. When it comes to the 60,000 or 65,000 still on the pandemic unemployment payment, most of them for more than a year and in some cases almost two years, we are engaging with them individually to help them with job searches and to offer educational and training opportunities. The Department of Social Protection is doing its job making sure these people are still resident in the country because not all are and making sure people are not working and claiming at the same time. We all know there is a degree of this. Even if it is not a large number it is a number nonetheless. This group is different to those being laid off all of a sudden for the second or third time. This is why a different treatment is being applied.
With regard to 9 January, some Senators expressed the hope that restrictions could be lifted before then. I hope so too but I do not anticipate it being the case. Certainly my message to the industries I met yesterday was not to operate on the basis that restrictions would be eased before 9 January. We probably should not raise expectations in this regard. There are three reasons we have reimposed these restrictions. The first is increased social mixing in the run-up to Christmas, which may increase the caseload. This almost certainly will happen. The flu season is almost certainly going to happen. I hope it will not be a bad one but it will probably happen. There is also uncertainty about Omicron. I am not sure we will be certain about Omicron as soon as 9 January. We need to operate on the basis these restrictions will be in place at least until 9 January. Generally in our experience with the pandemic when restrictions are imposed they tend to be extended and not reversed sooner than the date designated. This is why we need to bear this in mind. Any time I hear anyone say "it is just for a few weeks" in this pandemic I always ask them how many times they have said that and it has then turned out to be for a few months. This is why we should always make decisions mindful of the fact that what might appear to be a temporary measure can be one that lasts for months and even years. We must always bear this in mind.
Senator Crowe mentioned the idea of a task force on the long-term future of the hospitality sector. This is a good idea. Perhaps we should try to get a clearer picture of where we are going with the pandemic before we do so. It is something we should do in 2022. I hope that 2022 will be the year we move away from restrictions on business and personal freedoms and social life to what is called a vaccine plus strategy. This will use vaccines, the new treatments that will be available, isolating people who are sick, much more testing and we are doing this, more hospital bed capacity and more ICU capacity and we are doing these things, and things such as masks and ventilation. It will be about trying to use all of these together as enough to keep the virus and pandemic under control and, therefore, not having to use restrictions on business or people's freedoms. I hope we get to this point in 2022.
I want to say there are no plans to close schools early. The plan is to open schools as normal in January. There is an active debate about the mid-term break in October. It seems the mid-term break in October for schools and colleges might have led to an increase in cases. The truth is that when children are in school they tend to only mix with the children in their class, their parents at home and their nuclear family. When schools are out there is an argument that people start mixing, travelling and encountering groups they would not otherwise mix with. It might be better to keep the schools operating until they are supposed to and not bring forward the break for this reason. Obviously there are arguments both ways on this.
On the issue of statutory sick pay, this is a personal priority of mine. One of the things I had the privilege to do as Minister with responsibility for social protection was to introduce paternity benefit and paternity leave. As health Minister I had the privilege of working with Kathleen Lynch to introduce free GP care for children aged under six. I hope in my time in office as Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment I will have the privilege to introduce the first statutory sick pay scheme in Ireland. It was delayed. It is not with us now but with the committee. As soon as the committee gets back to us we will get it to the House. I hope it will be enacted by the Dáil and Seanad without delay. I want to phase it in. We need to bear in mind that for many employers, particularly small employers, this will be an added cost. People running barbershops or small shops in rural, urban or suburban Ireland who have a member of staff out sick will have to pay them and their replacement. It does all add up and I want to be sensitive to this and understand this explanation from business. This is why I want to phase it in over time and the intention is to do so. I also need to bear in mind in particular businesses along the Border. We will introduce a sick pay scheme that will pay up to €110 a day. In the Six Counties of Northern Ireland it is £90 a week. South of the Border people will receive more in sick pay in one day than they would get in an entire week north of the Border. This is a risk for businesses along the Border in particular. I appeal to Sinn Féin in particular as it co-chairs the Government in Northern Ireland-----
-----rather than saying we are not doing enough here maybe to do the same in Northern Ireland. That might help to take away some of the arguments for a better scheme here south of the Border.
On the tips Bill, the intention is we will have transparency on service charges. Restaurants or anybody imposing a service charge will have to say what is done with it and whether it goes to staff or elsewhere. When it comes to tips or gratuities they will go to staff and cannot be used to make up wages.
On the issue of pay, generally speaking pay across the Irish economy has been rising for many years and rising ahead of inflation. We do not know whether this will be the case this year. Inflation is running at approximately 5%. There are some indications that in the round, and this is not the case for everyone of course, we will see pay increases of between 5% and 7% this year, which is significant. The claim that Ireland is a low-pay economy is a little misleading. If we look at our minimum wage and compare like with like it is one of the highest in the world. Compare what a nurse in Ireland is paid to the pay in Britain or elsewhere in Europe. For gardaí, doctors, cleaners or construction workers generally speaking our pay rates are at the higher level when compared with other countries in Europe and around the world. Yes, if we adjust it for cost of living it does not look so good because the cost of living in Ireland is high. If we then adjust it for personal taxes, which are relatively low in Ireland, it looks a bit better. To say we are a low-pay economy only stacks up based on relativities. This is not because we are a low-pay economy. It is because we have many people on high pay, generally working in multinationals, and this distorts the picture. The claim that Ireland is a low-pay economy is misleading. When we compare like for like it is really not the case.
On the EU minimum wage directive, the Government is broadly supportive of the current text. There have been some changes made that have largely allayed our concerns.
On the issue of vaccine equity and global vaccine justice, I want to state for the record the Government is a very strong supporter of vaccine equity in the world. Morally we need to make sure the world is vaccinated. How did we defeat smallpox and polio? We did not do it in one country, we did it on an international basis. This is what we need to do with Covid also. It is also in our interests to do so. Any country that is not fully vaccinated is a reservoir for potential reinfection. It is the right thing to do even from a self-interest point of view. What is the evidence for this? We have donated 2 million vaccines to other countries. They have already arrived in Uganda and Nigeria. Irish people have been enormously generous through the UNICEF campaign to get a vaccine donate a vaccine. I did it myself. We are contributing to COVAX. The Department and I have consistently opposed export bans. Other countries that have been a little bit preachy recently, such the United States and other European countries, supported export bans. They would not allow vaccines to be exported from their countries.
We were always opposed to export bans. Through our aid programmes we are helping in practical ways with refrigeration, distribution, administration and regulation because all those things are necessary in a vaccine programme. I agree that Western governments need to do much more.
We need to remember this is a European competence and not an Irish competence. As part of the European Union, we are very strong advocates of what is called compulsory licensing, which allows governments to license the production of vaccines on a generic basis, whether the pharmaceutical companies like it or not. It could be very useful for countries like South Africa and India, which have vaccine-making capacity, to be allowed to license the production of those vaccines in the plants in their countries, irrespective of whether those companies like it. That is what we, the European Union, support and advocate.
I have an open mind on the alternative suggestion of a TRIPS waiver. I have always said that if we receive a WTO proposal in writing, we will look at it. That has not happened yet. I met the United States Trade Representative, Katherine Tai, and said we would happily look at a proposal if one lands; it has not yet. I believe it is being somewhat misrepresented as a panacea and a bit of a magic wand. The truth is that a TRIPS waiver will not result in a single vaccine plant being built in Mali, Mauritania or Malawi this year, next year or the year after. It takes two or three years to build a vaccine plant which then needs to be staffed and quality controlled.
What is needed is capacity, know-how, qualified scientists and technicians, capital, and experienced medicine and safety regulators. All those things are needed to get the vaccine from the lab into people's arms. That is why it is better to have governments and pharmaceutical companies working together to find a solution rather than trying to create conflicts and turn one against the other. I do not think that is the right approach.
We need a global solution that is comprehensive, intelligent, workable and that does not disincentivise innovation. We will be asking these companies to produce the vaccines against the variants. Therefore, we do not want to disincentivise innovation. Picking up on Senator Ward's remarks, I hope that when we have a debate on these things, it can be a reasoned and factual one. We should not need to question each other's motivations or bona fides, which demeans us all.
I very much agree with what Senators had to say about the arts sector in this debate. Yesterday's meeting with representatives of the sector was a very difficult one. We were greeted with more of a sense of dismay than anger, a sense that certain sectors, including the arts and entertainment sector, have faced one of the longest lockdowns in the world, uncertainty about what will happen next spring and summer, and a feeling that they have been left behind and may be sacrificed to save other sectors in the economy. As I said to them yesterday, when it comes to the hospitality sector, arts, events and entertainment are not to blame in any way for the pandemic; the virus is to blame.
It just so happens that this virus transmits in settings where many people are gathered. Unlike education, healthcare, childcare, food production and manufacturing, these are sectors that public health officials describe as being discretionary activities and therefore can be closed. In many ways they are sectors that are now taking the hit to protect the rest of society. That is why we have a moral obligation to protect them financially and to ensure they can survive and come through the other side.
I find the term "discretionary activity" very hard to stomach because to me and many other people in this House, life without music, sport, comedy, drama, nightlife and festivals, is not a life worth living in the long term because it is culture and sport that makes us human. It makes us feel that we belong and allows us to express ourselves. It allows us to escape, something we really need to do from time to time. It allows us to explore and to engage with people with whom we would otherwise never engage.
We really need to get these sectors open as soon as it is possible and safe in the new year. That may involve testing, ventilation or other things we have not thought about in the past. If capacity is restricted, as it may well be throughout the course of the winter, we need to put in place subsidies to allow performances to go ahead even if that means paying half the ticket price or something like that. Representatives of the sector have told me that if a venue can accommodate 100 people standing, it will only fit 30 sitting down, which is just not viable. We need to consider subsidies and financial supports to at least allow these sectors to operate and people to practise their art. People need to enjoy art and culture again in the new year because it has been far too long.
I again thank Senators for their comments.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Tánaiste as ucht na bhfreagraí cuimsitheacha sin. I thank the Tánaiste for his positive engagement with the suggestions raised and especially for his announcement about those who are uninsurable in the context of Storm Barra.