Minister for Social Protection Heather Humphreys has reassured Pandemic Unemployment Payment recipients that most will retain their entitlement to a Christmas bonus even if they return to work when public health restrictions are eased next week.

Over 1.6 million people currently receiving State benefits are set to receive a Christmas bonus payable in the week beginning 7 December, at a total cost to the Exchequer of €390m.

That includes over 311,000 Pandemic Unemployment Payment recipients - 90% of current PUP claimants - who will qualify for the bonus at a cost of around €93m.

To be eligible, they must have received the payment for at least 17 weeks (not necessarily on a continuous basis) since the scheme was launched last March, and be claiming the benefit for at least part of the week commencing tomorrow, Friday 27 November.

The minister has noted concerns that some people could be reluctant to return to work as businesses reopen next week, for fear of losing out on the Christmas bonus.

However, she stressed that as long as people are receiving PUP "for any one day of the period Friday 27th November [tomorrow] to Thursday 3rd December", they will receive the bonus on Tuesday 8 December, assuming they have accrued their 17 weeks on the scheme.

It means there will be situations where people will receive a double PUP payment (the standard payment and the Christmas bonus) in the week beginning 7 December while being back in work.

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"It is important that people know that as long as they meet the above criteria (ie 17 weeks on the PUP including at least one day of the PUP Payment Week), their Christmas Bonus is intact," she said.

The minister noted that more people than usual on Jobseekers' Allowance will also be eligible for the bonus.

Previously, Jobseekers' Allowance recipients could only qualify for the Christmas bonus if they had been receiving it for at least 15 months, but for this year the qualifying period has been reduced to four months (17 weeks) "on an exceptional basis". 

Minister Humphreys acknowledged the particular difficulties facing many families this year.

"There are many individuals and families who have lost their job or business as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and have been out of work for several months now.

"The bonus will help to ease the financial burden on them at this very difficult time," she said.

She also noted that this additional money should boost local economies, saying: "If people spend their Christmas bonus locally this year, they will be putting over €390m into the Irish economy and local businesses."

The bonus amounts to 100% of the normal weekly payment to recipients of long-term social welfare schemes, including pensioners, widows, carers and lone parents.

However, the payment date will vary depending on which social welfare scheme applies for the individual involved.

Meanwhile, up to 90,000 people could come off the PUP and return to work soon under the restrictions easing plan set to be agreed by the Government tomorrow.

This includes 26,000 workers employed in the retail and wholesale sector, RTÉ News understands.