Coronavirus: Harris ‘packed pubs’ warning ‘petrifying entire sector’

Bar trade bodies say potential closure until vaccine found a ‘nightmare scenario’

Mulligan’s Pub on Poolbeg Street: Publicans across Ireland are concerned about social distancing in a bar environment – the practicalities and the financial toll. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Mulligan’s Pub on Poolbeg Street: Publicans across Ireland are concerned about social distancing in a bar environment – the practicalities and the financial toll. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

 

Publicans have accused Minister for Health Simon Harris of “petrifying the entire sector” with suggestions pubs could not return to normal before a coronavirus vaccine has been found.

Both the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland (VFI) and the Licensed Vintners’ Association (LVA) are to seek an advisory role on how businesses might move toward reopening.

In a Sunday Independent interview, Mr Harris said he did not see how “packed pubs” could come back before a vaccine or effective treatment.

The comment spooked an industry that employs, by its own estimation, about 50,000 people, the vast majority of whom have lost their jobs to the pandemic.

“It was a bit of a shock to the system to read comments like that from the Minister in a newspaper on a Sunday morning,” said Noel Anderson, owner of a number of Dublin city bars. “A lot of staff and publicans are really worried at the moment.”

Great unease

VFI chief executive Padraig Cribben said Mr Harris’s remarks caused great unease and were both “unnecessary and unhelpful”.

Donall O’Keeffe, chief executive of the LVA, said the prospect of bars not reopening this year – based on estimates regarding the availability of a vaccine – was the “nightmare scenario”.

“If that happens then most pub businesses in this country will be out of business for good,” he warned. “While Minister Harris is doing an exceptional job at a time of national crisis, his comments have really petrified the entire pub sector across the country.”

A spokeswoman for the Minister said he was aware of the difficulties faced by publicans and said the Government had put business supports in place.

Publicans have also raised concerns about the reality of social distancing in a bar environment – not just the practicalities, but the financial toll.

Busy weekends

“The problem with confining numbers in pubs is that the [running] costs really stay the same,” said Ewan McDonald, former operations manager of a number of venues, who noted most pubs operate on small margins and depend on busy weekends.

“You would be opening up to lose money and I don’t think that works for anyone.”

But there are also concerns around the return of consumer confidence. “It’s going to be a slow burner getting people’s confidence up about going out,” said Jimmy Lyons, owner of the Matt the Thresher gastro pubs in Dublin and Limerick. He is about to roll out a food takeaway service, a survival adaption he believes will remain part of his business’s future.

Willy Byrne, proprietor of Billy Byrne’s in Kilkenny, said the last thing anyone wants is an increase in the price of a pint, mooted as one potential solution.

“It’s a very worrying time for the trade. Some bars are just on the fringe. They probably just won’t open again.”