The Department of Social Protection budget for 2020 has soared by over 50% to almost €32 billion due to measures to support people affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The figures are contained in a submission to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Social Protection, Community, Rural Development and the Islands.

In December 2019, the estimated Departmental budget for 2020 was €21.2 billion - though this estimate was formulated prior to the pandemic, which has necessitated the allocation of an extra €10.4bn.

The Covid-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) was launched on 15 March as the country went into lockdown.

By 5 May, around 600,000 people had been laid off and were claiming the €350 weekly payment.

This figure did not include over 200,000 people on the Live Register, as well as up to 400,000 people whose jobs and incomes were supported through the Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme.

On 28 May, the Dáil approved an allocation of €28.04 billion for the Department "...including a provision of €2.23 billion in respect of PUP expenditure up to mid-June 2020, when the scheme was scheduled to close".

However, by the 18 November, the Government was forced to issue a revised estimate for 2020 expenditure of €31.6 billion - including spending on PUP of €5.094 billion. As of yesterday, the PUP scheme had cost over €4.3 billion.

Today's government decision to leave the PUP scheme open to new entrants until its new scheduled closure date of 31 March, 2021 is set to see the cost mount again, should further public health restrictions or lockdowns result in more layoffs.

However, the cost could be reduced somewhat from February when the top rates of payment (€350 or €300) are due to be cut to either €250 or €203, while from 1 April, the PUP will fall again to be aligned with Jobseeker's Benefit at €203.

The Department of Social Protection submission notes: "The cost of PUP in 2021 will depend on the ongoing suppression of the Covid-19 virus and on progress in reopening the economy and society. Both of these factors will determine the extent of labour market recovery into next year and the approach that the Government will take with respect to what further changes, if any, may be made to the PUP."

Department officials will appear before the Joint Oireachtas Committee tomorrow morning.

In a separate letter, the Director of the Parliamentary Budget Office Annette Connolly notes the "significant" impact of the pandemic on both Exchequer spending and on the reserves of the Social Insurance Fund, from which benefits are paid.

She forecasts that a "substantial subvention (Exchequer payment) to the SIF of almost €600 million will likely be required in 2021".

The DSP submission also alludes to a recent controversy involving Aer Lingus staff who experienced difficulties in claiming Jobseeker supports when they were put on short time with reduced earnings.

It confirms that a review of applications for the pre-September period is under way, with a dedicated team assigned to the project.

The Department says a process has been agreed with Aer Lingus that any outstanding information required to finalise decisions on welfare entitlements will be provided by the company to employees as quickly as possible.

"Due of the volume and complexity of claims involved and the need to go back to individual claimants, it is expected that this process will take some time to complete," the Department's submission concludes.