Michael Clifford: The 'green jersey' is optional for some

"We are not all in this together. The green jersey is optional for some, applied with force to others. The green jersey is also horribly stained since its last outing, when the country previously faced into daunting times."
Michael Clifford: The 'green jersey' is optional for some
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, in Best Menswear in Dublin. He has described the coronavirus crisis as very unequal. Picture: Aine McMahon/PA Wire

We are not all in this together. The green jersey is optional for some, applied with force to others. The green jersey is also horribly stained since its last outing, when the country previously faced into daunting times.

During the week, Leo Varadkar acknowledged that in economic terms some have been hit far harder than others as a result of the pandemic. Obviously, those hit worst have been the bereaved and the loved ones they have lost. But the pandemic will also exercise a heavy toll among many sectors of society in terms of standard of living.

“It’s a very serious economic crisis and one that’s very unequal,” Mr Varadkar said at a virtual event hosted by the Washington based Atlantic Council.

“It’s the private sector workers who have lost their jobs whereas the public sector did not — and maybe younger people and migrants in precarious employment who lost their jobs, whereas people working for big companies, multinationals, in the professions, in the public service, have been largely unaffected financially. The country was very united during the pandemic. The economic crisis that is coming could be very divisive.”

There is a large grain of truth in that summation. What is unclear is whether Mr Varadkar was laying out these truths simply as an acknowledgement of the facts, or whether he believes it is the job of the Government to close the gaps of inequality that have opened up.

The tone set this week would not engender confidence that minimising division is high on the agenda.

On Monday, the Department of Social Protection updated holiday procedures for jobseekers allowance, supplementary welfare payments and the pandemic unemployment payment schemes. As of this week, there are 439,000 people on the pandemic payment.

Anybody in receipt of any of these payments will have their monies stopped for the period of their absence if they travel abroad. They will also not receive payments for the two weeks required to self-isolate on return.

This, the Department, says, is in response to the public health advice against all non-essential travel abroad. So, take the person in precarious, or low-paid, employment who is among the 80% of consumers who pre-booked their holidays. The lockdown put this person out of work and onto the pandemic payment. Now that flights are operating again, she has the choice of either taking up her holiday or forfeiting the, sometimes major, sum of money she paid out prior to March 12 last. Should she stay or should she go?

That is a matter for herself and her conscience. She can weigh up her own fears or absence thereof, and what obligation she may feel she has to wider society. She can fit herself out for the green jersey.

Various voxpops conducted across the media during the week suggests there are many who intend fulfilling their travel plans. Others take a different view, some citing personal fears, others citing societal obligation.

Moral pressure is being applied by public health and Government voices, appealing to people to stay at home. But for most, the decision is theirs and theirs alone. For those in receipt of the payments mentioned above, a stick rather than a carrot is being proffered. If you travel, you lose out on a payment to which you are legally and morally entitled.

Is that fair? One group, the majority who have weathered the early straits of this emergency in relatively good shape, are being asked to don the green jersey.

The others, already under serious financial pressure, are being told “Pull on the jersey or else…” Next week, we are told, there will be bridge building in the sky to countries considered to be relatively low-risk in terms of infection. These “air bridges” will open up safer options for those who either really want to travel or have already booked and paid for holidays. But people on the welfare payments will still be faced with the prospect of losing money if they leave the country.

That’s the tone that is being set. It does not bode well for the storm to come.

Following the economic collapse in 2008 the green jersey was dusted down and rolled out. “We’re all in this together” was the mantra of the government at the time.

As it was to turn out we weren’t. Some managed an awful lot better than others. Those least able to bear the economic pain were hit hardest. And the problems that resulted were stored up and cut loose into the political system in the general elections of 2016 and 2020.

The former was marked by Fine Gael’s slogan “keep the recovery going”, illustrating that the party was either unaware or uninterested in the reality that the recovery was the preserve of some, and nowhere to be seen for others.

The general election last February was a signpost further down the same road.

Large tracts of people were fed up because they continued to feel left behind in a country where some were long back up on the horse and galloping through new prosperity.

Mr Varadkar, in his speech last week, appeared to be concerned about the prospect of another unequal recovery. Yet in recent weeks, his policies suggest somebody acting as if nothing has changed since last February.

For instance, he wants to raise the threshold for inheritance tax, already at a pretty generous €335,000. One of his party’s main planks in the programme for government is a pledge not to increase income tax or the USC. So where, beyond borrowing, is the money going to come from to fill the hole in the public finances? There is precious little stomach for new taxes. Whose services are going to be hit worst? Those who have the least political power or leverage?

By the same token, the new Public Expenditure minister, Michael McGrath, declared last week that a proposed 2% increase in public pay will go ahead in October. As if nothing has changed.

There may well be a case to be made for accelerating pay equalisation in some sectors. But a blanket hike in pay while others are seeing their lives upended in a few short months?

The Government, and the wider body politic, has recent experience of how not to manage a recovery in terms of burden-sharing. At least they face into the coming storm with that advantage. There are additional factors to consider also. The emigration valve is most likely turned off. Youth unemployment is a huge issue, and, if not tackled properly, could lead to serious unrest. But dealing with these matters is the stuff of governance today.

Whether lessons have been learned from the last recession will become apparent over the coming months. The tone set this week was not encouraging, but let’s wait and see whether or not there can be a fair recovery this time around.

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