Starting on Friday, Icelandic parliament will only convene to deal with issues that are directly related to the COVID-19 virus, RÚV reports. This precaution will be in place until at least April 20.
The decision to postpone all non-COVID-related business was made in the wake of news that three parliamentary employees are confirmed to have been infected by the virus and are now in isolation. The employees all work in Skúlahús, a building on Kirkjustræti which houses additional parliamentary offices. All other employees who work in Skúlahús have been quarantined.
The new dictate regarding limited parliamentary sessions is, therefore, a timely effort to curb the spread of the virus as much as possible. Reducing the number of parliamentary meetings reduces the risk of infection among MPs and should, therefore, allow Alþingi to continue to address important public health issues in a timely manner.
Friday’s parliamentary session is expected to focus on the passing of two new bills intended to reduce financial hardship on businesses and individuals whose livelihoods have been impacted by the pandemic. For one, the Welfare Committee and Minister of Social Affairs Ásmundur Einar Daðason are currently working on amendments to a bill regarding wage relief for workers whose hours have been cut or who are otherwise facing under-employment.
In its original form, the bill stated that the Icelandic government would pay up to half of the wages due to workers with whom an employer has signed a reduced employment rate contract. Combined with employer contributions and payments from the Unemployment Insurance Fund, this was intended to bring underemployed workers’ wages to 80% of their full salary. However, it’s likely that after Friday’s meeting, the government’s share of wage payments may well increase to 75%. With employer and Unemployment contributions, this would bring workers’ salaries up to as much as 90% of their full salary. The total amount received is not currently supposed to exceed ISK 650,000 a month ($4,617/€4,327), but it is possible that this cap will be raised as well.
The measure could cost the government up to ISK 20 billion ($1.42 million/€1.33) and would extend until June 1.
Parliament also intends to introduce new economic stimulus measures, as the economic situation in Iceland has deteriorated much faster than expected when the government rolled out its initial measures on March 10. Two possible measures being considered are the cancellation of payroll taxes for businesses and government guarantees on business loans. These measures would update the relief bill that was already approved by parliament which allowed businesses to defer payment on a portion of their withholding and payroll tax payments.