Reopening and Delta variant debate requires cool heads

Caveat: Covid pass system would probably have saved many businesses

Enjoying a pint at Blakes of the Hollow, Enniskillen: We know the Delta variant has added to the risks indoors, where we all breathe each other’s air. File photograph: Ronan McGrade

Enjoying a pint at Blakes of the Hollow, Enniskillen: We know the Delta variant has added to the risks indoors, where we all breathe each other’s air. File photograph: Ronan McGrade

Your Web Browser may be out of date. If you are using Internet Explorer 9, 10 or 11 our Audio player will not work properly.
For a better experience use Google Chrome, Firefox or Microsoft Edge.

 

On the pace of Ireland’s reopening and the rise of the Delta variant, now is a time for cool heads in a debate often marked by hot tempers. Many people on either side are entrenched. It costs nothing for counterparties to consider each other’s viewpoints on occasion, before recalibrating their own.

So where are we now? With all domestic travel restrictions lifted, retail fully operational and an element of respite for parts of the hospitality industry through the resumption of outdoor dining, the next stage of the economic reopening boils down to four separate issues: allowing indoor dining; the resumption of inbound and outbound foreign travel; the operation of indoor and outdoor events; and the eventual return of office workers, which sounds as if it will be almost the final leg of the journey. The reopening of nightclubs, which will be the absolute last step, will be our celebration of the end this nightmare.

A few weeks of unnecessary delay in summer could cost the equivalent of several months of lost revenue

Set aside the return of office workers for now. That issue largely will fall into place by itself once the initial vaccination campaign nears a finish, which hopefully will be in September. The State’s recommendations on it will matter, but not as much as local agreements between employers and their staff, many of whom will want to keep the best bits of remote working, such as the flexibility.

For bars and restaurants, event operators and the tourism and aviation sectors, the issues are much more immediate. For most of these businesses, summer is their breakfast, lunch and tea. Decisions need to be made quickly and not in a “few weeks’ time”, as some have called for. A few weeks of unnecessary delay in summer could cost the equivalent of several months of lost revenue, averaged out over a year.

Effort must be expended now on parsing all the available data to establish whether delaying reopening is truly, absolutely necessary. It cannot be done simply to give certain medics a few extra crumbs of comfort. A delay means a change in the course that has been already set. It should be incumbent on those who want a delay to produce clear evidence that a change in course is necessary. If that evidence exists, it will be found in the UK, which is weeks ahead of Ireland on vaccination and reopening. Case numbers are rising there, but, as of yet, there is no corresponding increase in serious illness or death.

Rugby fans in Doheny and Nesbitt’s pub in Dublin: There should be a Haccp sticker on indoor trade in bars and restaurants resuming on July 5th. File photograph: Stephen Collins/Collins
Rugby fans in Doheny and Nesbitt’s pub in Dublin: There should be a Haccp sticker on indoor trade in bars and restaurants resuming on July 5th. File photograph: Stephen Collins/Collins

Anybody who has worked in hospitality will be familiar with the food safety system known as Haccp (hazard analysis and critical control points). It is about identifying and labelling specific danger areas for contamination. You’ll usually find a Haccp sticker over a kitchen sink, for example, because that is one place where contamination can easily happen. Chopping boards are another Haccp hotspot, and so on. It is about avoiding food safety hazards in the first place, rather than checking for them afterwards.

On the current reopening schedule, indoor trade in bars and restaurants is set to resume on July 5th. There ought to be one big red Haccp sticker over that date on the calendar. A Haccp sticker doesn’t mean you cannot do what you intended to do. It just means you should only do it after assessing the known risks at that point.

We know the emergence of the Delta variant has added to the risks indoors, where we all breathe each other’s air. This variant, which first emerged in India, is up to 60 per cent more transmissible and also can catch people in between their first and second doses in a way that previous variants did not. There is a consistency on this in the findings of public health agencies across Europe, so its significance cannot really be denied.

Under the terms of the EU agreement on travel, Ireland will be required to explain to the European Commission if its rules become stricter than everyone else’s

Currently, roughly two-thirds of the Irish adult population have not had two doses, while well over one-third have not had any dose at all. Most of those are younger people who are less likely to get seriously ill with the virus, but are more likely to socialise in bars and restaurants and catch it in the first place.

Indoor hospitality trade resumed in the UK on May 17th, by which time Delta was already circulating freely there. But until clear evidence emerges that relatively significant numbers of young people in the UK are becoming quite ill, then the arguments for delaying Ireland’s July 5th reopening seem weak. If clear evidence of it does emerge before July 5th, then the game changes.

On the State’s Covid calendar, another Haccp sticker sits on July 19th, when foreign travel is supposed to resume to European Union countries with other regions such as the US. Ireland will be under pressure to go with the herd of other European countries on this. The whole point of the EU’s Covid certificate scheme is to promote uniformity of approach to a fundamental tenet of the bloc – the free movement of people within Europe as one region. Under the terms of the EU agreement on travel, Ireland will be required to explain to the European Commission if its rules become stricter than everyone else’s. Again, that will require clear evidence for a more cautious approach, which, as of yet, has yet to emerge.

The State chickened out of introducing a Covid pass system to facilitate greater economic freedoms for the fully vaccinated

If and when indoor hospitality and travel safely resume, then pressure to allow larger-scale indoor and outdoor events will increase. That debate in Ireland has been sullied, however, by the row over antigen testing, which some experts say can play a role in facilitating safe events, while others say the evidence for this does not exist. The Government needs to step in to settle that row one way or the other.

With indoor dining and events, however, Ireland is beginning to feel the effects of another self-inflicted wound. Mindful of not giving energy and a rallying point to the anti-vaxxer movement, the State chickened out of introducing a Covid pass system to facilitate greater economic freedoms for the fully vaccinated. If it had introduced such a system, there would be little debate now around what should happen on July 5th – bars and restaurants would be opening, many businesses would be saved, and that would be that.

There was a lot of hot air around the Covid pass discussion, such as claims that it involved “medical apartheid” and was a huge threat to civil liberties. I never believed it was either of those things – it was only ever going to be a temporary and practical measure to get parts of the economy and society moving again. We should have done it when we had the chance. It is probably too late for it now.

Business Today

Get the latest business news and commentarySIGN UP HERE
The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.