March 18 of this year is to be designated a bank holiday, under a new proposal agreed by Government.
The holiday will be a once-off national commemorative event, dedicated to healthcare workers and those who have lost their lives during the pandemic.
The Cabinet has also agreed that frontline public healthcare workers who worked in an environment in which they were exposed to Covid-19 will be given a one-off tax-free bonus of €1,000.
Announcing the new public holiday, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said the holiday would be "a day of remembrance and recognition.
He noted 9,000 lives have been lost on the island of Ireland since the pandemic began.
"The government will recognize those volunteers and members of the public who have helped us fight the pandemic, especially healthcare workers and those who were exposed to Covid-19 even before there were any vaccines," he said.
"In addition to the current public holidays, the government has agreed to a one-off bank holiday on 18 March in tribute to the efforts of everyone in the pandemic and those who lost their lives."
Leo Varadkar says it does appear Ireland is at the end of the Omicron wave and the public holiday is planned for when restrictions are expected to be eased.
"I don't think we're saying as a government the pandemic is over, there will be new variants of concern in the future, another winter and immunity will wane over time," he said.
The public holiday on March 18 is in recognition of the Irish public and workers' contribution in this pandemic.— Micheál Martin (@MichealMartinTD) January 19, 2022
We are particularly conscious of the contribution of our healthcare workers.
This €1000 tax free payment recognises their work in caring for our most vulnerable.
The March 18 event is separate from the additional bank holiday set to be added to the calendar from next year.
That holiday will take place sometime in early February, around the date of St Brigid’s Day.
The St Brigid's Day holiday, the first to be named for a woman, also marks Imbolc, the ancient pagan festival which in ancient times was seen as a period where there is a return to life and Celtic new year, all four Celtic seasonal festivals will now be public holidays.
Special services will be held over the four-day weekend, the Tánaiste added, but the main state event will be held on the Sunday, marking roughly two years since the pandemic began.
He said the new public holiday may spark increased spending which would help the tourism industry.
Health Minister Stephen Donnelly said the broad approach is public healthcare staff who worked in health care settings employed by the HSE, ambulance workers, private nursing homes, hospices, porters, cleaners and anyone who was on site and had to be around patients would also be eligible to receive the payment.
All those who worked in labs and swabbing centres, including defence forces personnel, will also be included.
However, healthcare staff who work in private hospitals and staff at private swabbing centres will not be eligible.
Mr Donnelly said that this was not a reflection on the work carried out by those in private hospitals over the pandemic, but that the focus is on those in the public health system.
He said the payment should be given out "as quickly as possible and certainly not towards the summer".
"We'll put a process in place where people who are clearly eligible who haven't got it can raise it, and secondly where there might be a question around their eligibility there will be a protocol in place."
On the topic of restrictions, Mr Donnelly added he will not speculate on hospitality opening hours before NPHET meet tomorrow.
"They need certainty, and we will be in the position to give it in the coming days.
"The nation should take great pride in the response from Ireland, we have the highest rate of takeup of vaccines, because of that we're able to have the conversation we're having right now," he said.
Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath said that singling out one group for payment was a difficult decision, but the work of healthcare workers could not be overlooked.
"We believe the national effort must be formally marked, the effort of frontline workers cannot be overstated, to mark their hard work and sacrifice, the package we have arrived at is fair and appropriate," he said.
"Working collaboratively across society has been a key element of government's approach and is reflected in this announcement today.
He said the estimated cost of this recognition payment will depend on the final number of staff deemed eligible, the number of public health staff alone to be paid would total €100m, the inclusion of some members of defense forces and hospices will be additional.
Mr McGrath said from a public sector point of view, the new bank holiday will cost €50m.
"There will also be additional spend over that time in domestic tourism and so on, but there is cost for private employers," he said.
Earlier, general secretary of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO), Phil Ní Sheaghdha has described the announcement of a one-off payment of €1,000 to public healthcare workers as “the right thing to do.
It was “a small thank you” and the right thing to do to recognise the “extraordinary sacrifice” of healthcare workers, she toldshow.
Ms Ní Sheaghdha called for the payment to include nurses in the public sector, in nursing homes, general practice nurses and student nurses who had worked with no pay in difficult circumstances.
“We’re all fighting the same fight.”
She said the payment had come “later than we would have like it”, but along with the extra bank holiday, it went “a long way” towards recognising the claim that had been made by the INMO seeking 10 days leave in recognition of efforts during the pandemic.
The Mandate trade union called for the payment to be extended to retail workers, especially those in the grocery sector who had worked through all the lockdowns.
Tadhg Daly of Nursing Homes Ireland called on the Government to include all nursing home staff in the payment as they had been “at the forefront” during the pandemic.
Staff working in private hospitals have not been included in the bonus, despite an agreement which saw them taking in public patients throughout the pandemic, and in the early stages being essentially taken over by the HSE.
It is understood this has caused some disquiet, although a number of private hospitals are believed to have given pandemic bonuses already.
It is believed the Bon Secours Health System which has hospitals in Cork, Tralee and Limerick, for example, gave a bonus to all staff at Christmas which included a €500-voucher, a specially-commissioned artwork and chocolates.
Family Carers Ireland have said a bank holiday is of no benefit to the estimated 500,000 carers.
“Family Carers Ireland is calling on the Government to extend the Covid bonus to family carers in receipt of the Carer’s Support Grant at a cost of approximately €120 million bearing in mind the savings to the state of €20 billion that family carers contribute each year,” said Catherine Cox, head of communications and policy.
Home and Community Care Ireland (HCCI) have called for professional carers working for private homecare companies to be included.
“It would be shameful and outrageous if the Government have forgotten about the significant sacrifice and hugely valuable contribution of home care during the pandemic,” said Joseph Musgrave ceo of HCCI.
Pharmacists have also called for inclusion as frontline workers.
“As we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, it is appropriate that the monumental efforts made by every healthcare worker is recognised and rewarded,” said Irish Pharmacy Union secretary general Darragh O’ Loughlin.
“This must include the 13,300 women and men in the community pharmacy sector whose efforts on the front lines have ensured continued healthcare to every community in Ireland.”