‘Clothes are not essential’: Minister Damien English defends retail restrictions

Supermarkets no longer able to sell clothes, toys and homeware under level 5 lockdown

Minister of State Damien English faces criticism for ban on clothes for sale in supermarkets. File photograph Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

The junior minister with responsibility for the retail sector Damien English has been criticised for insisting that children's clothes are not essential items under the criteria set down by the Government.

When asked by RTÉ’s Prime Time presenter Miriam O’Callaghan on Thursday night why it was possible to “buy a bottle of wine, but not socks for my son”, Mr English said “socks come under clothes [AND]clothes are not essential.”

Responding to those comments, Social Democrat TD Gary Gannon said he believed clothes were an essential item and pointed out that during the first lockdown in March, April and May supermarkets were able to sell clothes alongside food and other essential items.

This practice has now ceased as retailers have been encouraged to adhere more closely to the definition of “essential items,” resulting in sections of supermarkets displaying toys, clothes and homeware being cordoned off.


“There’s absolutely no point in closing those aisles at the minute,” Mr Gannon said.

“In terms of how we make it fair, we have to make it sensible. I think closing down certain aisles in supermarkets where you can pick up socks and t-shirts, there is no point closing them down.”

He said shops had the “capacity for ventilation and they can apply social distancing manners. That’s not the case in every shop but for the large outlets that they should be able to.”

Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe said on Friday the decision on children’s clothing was taken in the interest of being fair to small retailers. He said there needed to be a level playing field.

Mr Donohoe said when dealing with the issue of public health, consistency was important to reduce contacts to protect public health.

He said the Government had a responsibility to protect the public health and an economic responsibility to those who have had to close their business

On social media people were critical of the stance adopted by the Government and Mr English.

"If children's clothes were not considered essential then the Government would remove the 0 per cent VAT rate," pointed out Mary Clary. "I know it's only six weeks but kids tend to grow fast, put their knees through stuff and lose coats/jumpers/shoes at an alarming rate," she added.

Sharon Leavy, meanwhile, said her children "go through trousers like you wouldn't believe. Yes, I can order online but that takes a week and I'm lucky to be in the position that I have a card and good wifi to do that. Many do not. On what planet are clothes not essential?"

Jeanne Dowling echoed similar concerns. "My two year old's shoes became too small during last lockdown," she said. "I couldn't buy online as she has an extremely wide foot with high instep usually I'm lucky to get one or two pairs in the whole shop that fit her properly. Now it looks like she'll be squashed into theses ones until December."

On Wednesday, Mr English hosted a conference call with retailers and representative groups to discuss how the sector will be allowed to operate between now and the beginning of December when the current Level 5 rules are set to be eased.

One person at the meeting told The Irish Times that Mr English had taken a similarly firm line when asked for by a Dunnes Stores representative for greater clarity as to what was deemed essential and non-essential. They were told no further clarifications were needed as all the information was already in the public domain.

Most large retailers across the State have modified stores and blocked off products deemed unessential while the country is under level 5 restrictions.

Under those rules shops that can remain open include supermarkets, pharmacies, health and hardware stores, shops selling PPE, fuel providers, shops selling things deemed essential for the welfare of animals and shops selling products necessary for the “essential upkeep and functioning of places of residence and businesses”.

Last weekend the Tánaiste and the Minister for Enterprise Leo Varadkar said selling non-essential items alongside essential goods was "not lawful" and he called on retailers to "abide by the regulations and ... to abide by the spirit of the regulations."

He said mixed retailers would have to separate their stock “and only sell the items that are essential” and cited the example of a supermarket, which has groceries and clothes saying the latter section should be cordoned off.

On Saturday and Sunday gardaí stepped up the policing of retail spaces although a spokesman declined to say how many shops had been visited or what if any action had been taken against those found to be in breach of the rules.

Tesco has said that even before the Garda enforcement measures were put in place it had been "adhering to Government guidelines and have closed our F&F clothing, home entertainment and toys units across the country. We will continue to offer a very limited range of essential clothing items only for customers for example, school wear and some baby clothing."

A spokeswoman for Boots said as an essential service it was able to continue to trade. “We are prioritising the sale of essential items in our stores, however if a customer wishes to purchase additional products from another area of the store, they are able to do so.”

Conor Pope

Conor Pope

Conor Pope is Consumer Affairs Correspondent, Pricewatch Editor