Varadkar says businesses should plan to remain closed for three months
Business groups react with air of resignation
Leo Varadkar: he said he knew businesses wanted certainty, which he could not offer, so the best thing for them to do was to plan “that this will be a three-month period”. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has advised businesses that are closed at present to plan to remain closed for the first quarter of this year.
The overriding objective for the Government was to protect public health and education, he told RTÉ Radio’s News at One on Thursday. When it was possible restrictions on businesses would be eased as they were closed, with sectors such as construction returning first, and moving down the list to non-essential retail.
Mr Varadkar said he knew businesses wanted certainty, which he could not offer, so the best thing for them to do was to plan “that this will be a three-month period”.
Business groups representing retail and hospitality reacted with an air of resignation to the Tánaiste’s prediction of a shutdown for the entire first quarter, given the scale of the public health challenge with galloping infection rates.
The Irish Tourism Industry Confederation (Itic) said Mr Varadkar’s prediction was a surprise to it but “we understand the virus numbers have gone crazy”.
Its board is due to meet on Friday morning, when it will discuss the development.
“If businesses are going to shut for up to three months you have to make sure that they are still in existence at the end of that period,” said Eoghan O’Mara Walsh, Itic’s chief executive.
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He said existing State financial supports were “maxed out”, and complained that some businesses that required support were finding it difficult to access cash under the Covid Restrictions Support Scheme, which pays forcibly shuttered operators up to 10 per cent of average turnover for weeks they are closed.
Itic said customer demand in April, if the sector could reopen then, would be directly related to the effectiveness of the State’s vaccination rollout.
The Licensed Vintners Association, which represents more than 700 Dublin pubs, said the “explosion in virus numbers has overtaken everything”.
Along with the Irish Hotels Federation, the Restaurants Association of Ireland and the group for rural pubs, the Vintners Federation of Ireland, it requested a meeting with Mr Varadkar on December 23rd, as the situation escalated.
Donall O’Keeffe, LVA’s chief executive, said he still wanted that meeting to go ahead and it would use it to ask the Tánaiste about the prospects for reopening.
Retail Excellence, which represents more than 2,000 store owners, said it would seek the return of click-and-collect services, which were this week suspended by Government as restrictions tightened, as soon as it was safe to do so.
“Retailers are planning for a shutdown a lot longer than just the end of January. We think a lot of shops will struggle into February, but after that it gets more difficult,” said Duncan Graham, its chief executive.
He also called for more clarity around the Government’s vaccination plan, and acknowledged the State would have to “whatever it takes” in terms of restrictions to get virus numbers down.
In his RTÉ interview Mr Varadkar said there were three “essential parameters” that would have to be considered before restrictions would be eased: a reduction in hospital admissions, a fall in community transmission, and the numbers vaccinated.
“We are facing into a dark month of January,” he added.
The Tánaiste said it was hard to predict when the peak of the “third wave” would be reached because of the new variant, but he did not anticipate any improvement for a few weeks.
He said the numbers requiring hospitalisation could go as high as 3,000, but it was hoped that they would not go higher than 1,500.