Window of opportunity to pass indoor dining legislation is very narrow

Political will is required to get the Bill through the Oireachtas

 

After days of intense negotiation between industry representative leaders and senior Government officials, a proposal is set to be put to Cabinet today as to how and when indoor hospitality can reopen.

And this is undoubtedly high stakes. Thousands of businesses and tens of thousands of jobs are in the mix.

After months of closure – and a number of false dawns – restaurants and pubs had been scheduled to trade indoors again on July 5th. However, at the eleventh hour the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) intervened, expressing alarm at the Delta variant, and the reopening of indoor hospitality was “paused” with no new date announced.

Tourism and hospitality industry leaders were shocked and alarmed. Shutters would remain closed with no plan in place to reopen. The beating heart of Ireland’s tourism experience for the domestic market and international tourists would be silent.

Yet again it seemed that cautious and conservative public health advice had trumped business interests.

Industry moved quickly and met with the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and the Minister for Tourism and it was agreed that if a plan to reopen could be agreed, that crucially was within Nphet’s stated guidelines, Government would consider it at the next cabinet meeting.

There followed intense negotiations between industry representatives, trade union leaders and senior Government officials. But this was negotiation 2021-style, via video link. Zoom might have led to less drama and tension but stakeholders remained intense, civil and, crucially, productive.

All agreed that perfection could not get in the way of progress if 180,000 people were to go back to work and if a way was to be found for indoor hospitality to open safely and sustainably. Six options were put on the table ranging from a laissez-faire Boris Johnson approach of opening without any restrictions to the sector remaining closed until the autumn when vaccination rates would allow for herd immunity.

Understandably, public health and business priorities clashed but quickly and practically a compromise solution was reached that could allow a battered and beleaguered sector to trade once again.

A proposal is set to be put towards Cabinet today that allows for the reopening of indoor hospitality to fully vaccinated individuals or those that have proof of prior infection. The EU Digital Covid Certificate, ostensibly for international travel, is to be used and 1.9 million Irish citizens are to receive their cert from this week.

The benefit of the Digital Covid Certificate is that any European visitors to the country over the coming months will have the exact same documentation. Crucially, there will be equivalent recognition of vaccine certs used by UK or US visitors, two critical source markets for the Irish tourism industry.

Effectively, although indoor hospitality would not be open to the whole country, from day one, a market of nearly 2 million people will be available for pubs and restaurants. Importantly, and at industry’s instigation, an exemption has been secured for kids – none of whom are vaccinated – so families will be able to enjoy indoor hospitality together.

Complexity

The proposal is not without its complexity. Primary legislation is needed to ensure business owners don’t fall foul of discriminatory or GDPR concerns. This will need to be rushed through the Oireachtas this week before the summer recess.

Industry representatives were keen to secure a solid date for reopening and have pushed for July 19th to coincide with the recommencement of international travel. This at least would give the remainder of the summer season for businesses to start recouping lost earnings and, from a tourism perspective, it means that vaccinated inbound visitors, so important to the national economy, could enjoy the full Irish tourism experience.

Negotiating a deal is one thing. Getting it implemented is another. Complex legislation is being drafted by officials, Cabinet needs to agree it, and both houses of the Oireachtas must vote it through this week before the President signs it into law. The window of opportunity is very narrow and this will require political will. The cost of failure doesn’t bare thinking of for thousands of tourism and hospitality businesses.

Is the path to reopening indoor hospitality ideal? Certainly not. Business owners will still have to operate at reduced capacity due to social distancing, the testing debate has been long-fingered, and how the new regime will be regulated and policed still requires clarity. Business owners not only will have to secure customer details for contact tracing but now will also have to check IDs, vaccination certs and QR codes. Once again, perfection and progress clash but it is the latter route that industry has chosen that will hopefully mean that the last key element of the economy that has remain closed will finally be allowed reopen.

Furthermore, a robust credible system will be in place so that should a new Covid variant emerge then indoor dining and drinking establishments can remain open.

With a fair wind, and legislative and political goodwill in the coming days, we will soon be able to visit our favourite restaurant or pub again and international tourists can enjoy a key part of the Irish visitor experience. What is very apparent, though, is that the tourism and hospitality sector has had an unmerciful pounding from this pandemic and associated Government restrictions. Exchequer supports will be needed for quite some time in the shape of an extended wage subsidy scheme, ongoing commitment to the 9 per cent VAT rate, and a new tranche of business continuity funding.

Crucially, though, we now have a path to allow indoor hospitality businesses to trade again. Over to the political classes.

Eoghan O’Mara Walsh is chief executive of the Irish Tourism Industry Confederation

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