Pubs seeing ‘natural bounce back’ after pandemic but staff shortages ‘biggest barrier’ to recovery

Business in some Dublin pubs exceeding pre-pandemic levels, Oireachtas Committee hears

The pub trade is experiencing a “natural bounce back” after the Covid-19 pandemic but a shortage of skilled workers is the “biggest barrier” to recovery in the industry, TDs and Senators have been told.

The Oireachtas Committee on Tourism heard that business in some pubs in Dublin is exceeding pre-pandemic levels but also concerns that a shortage of accommodation is a hurdle to attracting staff from abroad.

Pubs were among the businesses worst hit during the Covid-19 pandemic when they were subject to lengthy periods of closure and restrictions. Many staff left the industry to take up jobs elsewhere.

Donall O’Keeffe, the chief executive of the Licensed Vintners Association which represents Dublin pubs, said a “shortage of hospitality staff and management skills is the biggest barrier to rebuilding the pubs sector”.

He said a long-term, adequately funded State strategy for hospitality is “now imperative”.

Mr O’Keeffe, along with Paul Clancy, chief executive of the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland, called for changes to the visa regime for non-European Union nationals to make it easier to recruit staff from abroad.

He also said a lack of accommodation for such workers is a “very serious issue for us” given the shortage of homes and expensive rent in the capital.

Mr O’Keeffe said some publicans are providing accommodation for staff but that this is “very much the exception, not the norm”.

Mr Clancy of the Vintners’ Federation, which represents pubs outside Dublin, said: “Up and down the country, Cork, Limerick, Galway, they’re all experiencing the same issues with accommodation . . . what I hear a lot of recently, if you want to attract foreign staff back you’ve got to have accommodation for them which is an issue for an awful lot of publicans and businesses.”

However, in response to questions from Fianna Fáil TD Christopher O’Sullivan, Mr Clancy also said the business outlook for the year is positive and pubs are “very, very busy” due to a “natural bounce back” in business as people are enjoying socialising again.

The Committee was told that some 93 per cent of VFI members have reopened after the pandemic.

Mr O’Keeffe said: “Since we’ve reopened, people have come back to pubs in droves. We’re really encouraged by the number of young people that are coming back. Our sales are running between 90-110 per cent of 2019 levels — week-on-week equivalent.”

He said business in the city centre is “slightly weaker than suburbia” because offices have not fully reopened.

Mr O’Keeffe expressed concern that “economic clouds are there on the horizon” but said “in the near-term, outlook is really positive”.

Earlier Mr Clancy told the Committee the industry suffered “a massive shock” during the pandemic which “played havoc with people’s lives and careers”.

He said the knock-on effect of the current skills shortage is that it is “restricting the capability of many businesses to survive”.

Some pubs are operating with reduced opening hours — on fewer days of the week — as a result and there was concern at the impact this could have on Ireland’s attractiveness to tourists.