Taoiseach Micheál Martin on a visit to Navan last week where he heard the concerns of local retailers and business owners.

Gavan Reilly: Acting the pup with PUP makes all our lives that bit poorer

Full acknowledgement: I’ve written on these pages about unsustainable freewheeling spending during the pandemic, and how there’s no free money tap to pay for some of what is already being spent.

But that being said, it’s hard not to be struck by the total change in attitude to public spending at different ends of the pandemic – and how some of the principles and precedents created in March 2020 are now being jettisoned purely down to financial convenience.

Take the Pandemic Unemployment Payment, for example. Readers will remember its basic principle: those receiving it were not ‘unemployed’ in the same sense as those claiming the regular jobseekers’ allowance. By definition those in the PUP had jobs, but just had to be put out of work because of the public health measures. Whether it was ever totally fair to split the unemployed into two categories like this is an argument many will have for years to come, but the clear precedent was created: some people are more unemployed than others, and those who are only jobless because of the government‘s own interventions were therefore put on a higher pedestal.

This was a thought that came back to mind last Tuesday (how was it only last Tuesday?!) when Micheál Martin and Heather Humphreys were discussing the new restrictions on the nightlife and hospitality sector. “It’s not a closure, it’s a curfew,“ Heather said, insisting that the 12am closing time was not the reclosure of nightclubs by proxy – only to be undermined by the Taoiseach a moment later admitting that some nightclubs would not be able to viable trade if they had to close their doors so early.

There, we had an admission from the Taoiseach, that the new restrictions on the nightlife sector will conclusively result in some people losing their jobs. The head of government stated, as a matter of public record, that the new restrictions would result in some people being laid off barely a month after being rehired. So, shouldn’t those people be allowed to apply for the PUP this time to? How is this lay-off any difference to the one imposed on them when the first wave hit?

The answer from the Taoiseach – and one which he has repeated multiple times since – was fairly telling. He said that the current indications are of a shortage of labour in many sectors of the economy. It follows that anyone losing their jobs as a result of the new restrictions had plenty of other employment opportunities to walk directly into.

This is largely true, but it ignores one of the primary principles of the pandemic payment, and one enshrined by the government: that if you were laid off because of the government's own measures, you should not immediately be compelled to go looking for work in other industries.

That was a major point from the caretaker government in March 2020: payments were structured specifically to try and retain the link between the worker and the workplace, so that when the economy returns to full speed there was no need to go actively recruiting again. People were to have their jobs and to go back to them as soon as circumstances allow.

The policy different now is that those who work in the hospitality sector – and that will include many people like cabaret entertainers, wedding bands, DJs – are now told they will just have to go and find it elsewhere.

In March 2020 we had no idea how expensive the pandemic was going to be, and everybody’s best guess was that the economic support would only be needed for a short period of time to withstand one quick, deep shock. We now know that credit is not infinite: the State cannot effectively nationalise the economy indefinitely. But what is the outlook for the entertainment and cultural sectors – the ones which have been hardest-hit in the last 20 months, and the ones we missed so much during closure – that the government will not ringfence that workforce a second time?

For a country that prides self on its cultural exports and its ability to entertain the world, it is fairly sobering that those who entertain has simply been told to switch career.

It’s especially dismal that, given the relatively small industry it is, some financial arrangement couldn’t be made to allow event workers stay in their industry and see off one final winter.

As it stands, with some tinkering already in the nightlife sector – and the near universal expectation that more curtailments will be needed in the coming weeks – it seems as if the government is fully prepared to allow the slow, withering death of the one sector that often makes life itself worth living.

If we get through one last period of closures and there’s a shortage of wedding bands or entertainers in 2022, you’ll know why.

Gavan Reilly is Political Correspondent for Virgin Media News and Political Columnist for Meath Chronicle