Covid vaccine pass should be made ready for the arts as well as for pubs and restaurants

Hugh Linehan: Our conservative approach to pandemic challenges may increasingly cause issues

At this stage of the pandemic we know certain things about the Irish approach to the challenge: it’s at the more conservative end of the spectrum; it tends to be one size fits all, and it doesn’t allow for much in the way of nuance or agility.

That all could become an increasing problem as we navigate our way towards autumn. Green Party leader Eamon Ryan had to execute an inelegant swerve after telling RTÉ that vaccine passes were a bad idea for reasons of social cohesion. He was back on the airwaves 48 hours later explaining why the same passes were now probably going to happen, following changed recommendations from the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet). There was no shame in this; changing your policy in light of a changed reality is good governance. The real problem was that no preparatory work had been done in advance of the decision to introduce these passes.

Ryan's party colleague and Minister for Arts Catherine Martin should take that lesson onboard when it comes to applying the new pass to cultural events. Currently theatres and cinemas are permitted to have only 50 people (including performers) in an auditorium. Those numbers were due to be revised on July 5th but, as with indoor dining and drinking, all bets are off until July 19th at the earliest.

It now looks as though the Government may piggyback its vaccine pass system on the already agreed EU digital travel pass. Meanwhile, pilot events – both indoor and outdoor – are continuing and the outcomes of these, we are told, will inform further decisions on lifting restrictions later in the summer and beyond.


Ingenious ways

Promoters and production companies are finding ingenious ways of getting shows in front of audiences. This week alone saw an online premiere in Dublin (Claudia Carroll's The Secrets of Primrose Square) and an outdoor one in Limerick (the aptly titled In the Middle of the Fields, in a field in Kilmallock). Druid, the Abbey and the Gate all have productions in the pipeline.

In a fortnight's time, the Galway Film Fleadh will offer a blended programme of online streaming and open-air screenings in Father Burke Park. Kilkenny Arts Festival at the start of August has had to curtail some of its plans due to the hiatus in reopening, but is still going ahead with a wide-ranging programme, while the Galway International Arts Festival, which announces its programme next week, looks to have made a wise decision by moving from its usual July slot to the end of August. If restrictions haven't been eased by then, then things will really be looking bleak.

Martin can make a significant contribution to the success of these and many other ventures by being ready to apply the benefits of any vaccine pass to venues as quickly as possible once the system is up and running.

This might seem like a statement of the bleeding obvious, but recent evidence of the State’s inflexibility on issues such as the second vaccine doses for 60-somethings, or indeed of its unpreparedness for passes (even though several other European countries have had them in place for months), suggests that nimbleness is not a strength of this administration.

Danish example

What effect could a pass have? Unfortunately it won't have the impact of Denmark's, which has allowed bars, restaurants, cinemas and other venues to open with capacities close to normal. That's because Denmark has relied on mass antigen testing, with half a million tests carried out every day on people who are then permitted to enter premises for a period of time thereafter.

Nphet’s well-documented resistance to such testing has been a major factor in Ireland’s slow unwinding of restrictions. Sadly, and inexplicably (does the data show Irish people are less trustworthy?), that looks set to continue.

But in Denmark they also plan to end their "corona pass" by October 1st, on the basis that by then the vast majority of the country's population will have been vaccinated. Which will also be the case here, according to current Government projections. If (and it's always a big if), the Danes and other European countries stick to that schedule, it's hard to see how Ireland would be able to do anything else, unless the UK government's faster reopening goes terribly wrong and affects us.

The likelihood is that the next two months will be a bridging period before a much wider reopening. That bridging period will probably include a Covid vaccine pass, with the same challenges – age inequality and the implications for unvaccinated staff – for cinema and theatres as for restaurants and bars. But the Department of Arts needs to be at the table, making sure that any such new regulatory regime applies not just to hospitality but to culture too.