Sacrificing pubs for schools: Ireland’s latest Covid trade-off

Keeping pubs closed beyond September may prove final straw for many businesses

Taoiseach Micheal Martin said that pubs that are not serving food will stay closed until September and restrictions on gatherings will also remain. Video: RTE

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In the absence of a vaccine, policymakers have had to rely on controlling consumer behaviour to halt the spread of coronavirus. No matter how some might spin it, this has involved a trade-off between health and economics. Reducing transmission has cost us in terms of lost output and employment.

Reversing out of lockdown involves the same trade-off but in reverse: the economy opens up but with an increased risk of transmission. Getting the balance right is going to be tricky.

Opening both pubs and schools in the space of a few weeks has been adjudged too risky, particularly in light of the recent uptick in cases. A tough call had to be made. And it seems pubs have been sacrificed to facilitate the reopening of schools.

The latter will involve approximately one million students and 100,000 teaching staff coming back into circulation – on transport and in the classroom – and stands as the single biggest test of the State’s virus-containment project to date.

The pick-up in transmission among young people – a defining characteristic of the recent caseload here – is likely to have been a factor in the decision to keep pubs shut. The infection spikes associated with the reopening of pubs and bars in other countries is also likely to have weighed on minds.

Announcing the Government’s decision last night, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said: “International evidence shows very clearly that pubs and nightclubs reopening too early leads directly and inextricably to increased community transmission”.

Similarly Mike Ryan, executive director with the World Health Organisation (WHO), said the Government has to weigh up the risks of people gathering in “poorly ventilated, crowded places, where people may reduce their social distancing and let down their guard” against the ability to manage transmission rates in pubs and bars.

The fear now is that so-called wet pubs – those that don’t serve food (they account for about half the State’s 7,000 pubs) – won’t get the green light to reopen for at least another two months.

This is because the Government won’t risk reopening the pub trade in parallel with the return of schools at the start of September, meaning the next realistic window is at the end of September, and that’s providing that the schools return without a hitch.

Heavy losses

That may prove the final straw for many pub businesses, already nursing heavy losses from three and half months of lockdown and hoping to catch the tail end of the tourist season. Already, 11 pubs have closed for good in Dublin alone since this crisis began.

Donall O’Keeffe, chief executive of the Dublin-based Licensed Vintners’ Association (LVA), says pubs that serve food, restaurants and hotels have been open since June 29th and haven’t been implicated in a rise in infections. He also points out that outbreaks in other workplaces – building sites, meat factories – have been dealt with locally without the sector as a whole being closed.

These are reasonable arguments and there are livelihoods on the line, but the notion that we’d be able to lockdown and open up in several discrete phases is proving to be wishful thinking.

Instead we appear to be on a two steps forward, one step back path and the Government’s messaging and people’s patience are fraying as a result. Advising against travel while greenlisting certain destinations is a case in point.

Governments abroad face similar problems with resurgences of the virus reported in several countries and a swelling of cases globally.

In Australia, one of the first countries to exit lockdown, the situation has unravelled spectacularly with the military being deployed to enforce stay-at-home orders in Melbourne .

Some experts claim the spike in new cases is linked to the country’s swift exit from lockdown and its poor quarantine protocols for incoming people, while others argue the country is merely experiencing the real first wave of the virus.

Either way, adherence to social-distancing protocols and mask-wearing appears to breaking down with police reporting increasingly heated encounters with frustrated citizens.

We’re a far cry from that, but it highlights the potential dangers ahead if we get these decisions wrong. Closer to home, the French government’s scientific council said a second wave was highly likely this autumn or winter, and that the situation was “under control, but precarious. We could at any moment tip into a scenario that is less under control”. A comment that applies to most of its neighbours, including us.

There are positives, however. The Republic’s testing regime appears to be functioning to a much higher standard. In June, healthcare professionals and patients in hospitals waited an average of 16.8 hours from swabbing to a result.

Recovery speed

The volume of retail sales, the ultimate barometer of consumer health, was 3.5 per cent higher in June compared to a year ago, the first annual increase recorded since the crisis began. That seems to suggest the Irish consumer might not be as scarred or as wary as previously thought.

Irish households have also built up a stash of savings during lockdown, with Central Bank figures showing bank deposits jumped to €5.3 billion between April and the end of June. That compares with just €2 billion for the same quarter last year.

This is because households, not all but some, have been able to save money they would have normally spent on areas such as childcare, transport and recreational activity.

If this money is funnelled back out into the economy in the form of greater spending, the speed of recovery will be enhanced.

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