‘Confusion and inconsistency’: Opposition criticises plan to reopen indoor hospitality

Government hopes to bring Bill before Dáil today to allow reopening begin by July 26th

Serious concerns over the Government’s reopening plan for indoor dining were raised by Opposition TDs during a briefing on Tuesday morning amid warnings that it could create “confusion and inconsistency”.

Officials briefed members of the Oireachtas health committee on the plan, but consensus on whether to waive pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill could not be reached. A vote was taken, with Government TDs backing a decision to waive pre-legislative scrutiny and winning out by eight votes to six.

Under the reopening plan, those who are vaccinated or who have recovered from Covid-19 in the past six months will have to show proof of this to access indoor hospitality.

The Government’s new Digital Covid Certificates, which Ireland and other European Union countries are implementing to facilitate international travel, can be used as evidence of being fully vaccinated.

Young people under 18 who are not vaccinated will be allowed into indoor hospitality services if they are accompanied by a parent or guardian who has a pass.

There is to be a time limit of one hour and 45 minutes on customers being inside restaurants and pubs, with measures for premises to improve ventilation recommended.

The Government hoped to introduce the Bill to the Dáil as soon as Tuesday. After it is passed the legislation is expected to be signed into law by the President next week, allowing pubs and restaurants to open for indoor service at the very latest by July 26th.

‘Lack of clarity’

Sinn Féin’s health spokesman David Cullinane said there was a “real lack of clarity on how this will work”.

“We’re coming up with a convoluted plan that won’t be enforceable, won’t work and simply gives a pretence we’re doing something we’re not. It will just create confusion and inconsistency,” he said.

Róisín Shortall, the Social Democrats co-leader, said the briefing was “very unsatisfactory”.

“Officials were unable to provide any real detail about the manner in which this will operate. There are huge questions around enforcement and whether the HSA or HSE has any capacity to designate staff to carry out inspections,” she said.

“There is also no mention of any other mitigation measures, like legally required ventilation standards for indoor premises, in the legislation.”

The Labour Party described the Government’s legislation to allow indoor hospitality as rushed, discriminatory and “a big mess”.

Speaking at Leinster House on Tuesday, party leader Alan Kelly did not rule out the Dáil sitting beyond its last day to debate what he described as a complex issue and criticised the confusion caused by when Minister for Tourism Catherine Martin told RTÉ that certificates or letters could be issued by GPs to people who had recovered from Covid-19.

“From a deployment point of view it’s a mess, a big mess,” he said.

Mr Kelly said the Labour Party supported indoor dining but would offer it to everybody, with people using other techniques such as PCR testing, and antigen testing, which he said was being used successfully in so many EU countries.

People Before Profit TD Gino Kenny raised concerns as to whether indoor dining should go ahead at all before the substantial majority of people were vaccinated.

He said there were concerns on how the vaccine cert would be verified by the operator of a premises and the fact that general practitioners had flagged concerns about issuing letters to prove someone had been infected with Covid within the previous six months. The Government has since clarified that GPs will not be involved in issuing such letters.

Earlier on Tuesday, People Before Profit TD Paul Murphy said reopening indoor hospitality for people who are vaccinated or who have recent immunity would be a "reckless mistake".

Mr Murphy told RTÉ Radio’s Morning Ireland that the Government was “rushing” into the move at “the behest” of a private business lobby.

Fine Gael TD Colm Burke said he shared concerns over the legislation with the Opposition, but that the inclusion of a sunset clause meant it could be revisited if it were to be extended.

“My only view is that it’s a three month timescale, and in that context, it’s the only reason I’m supporting it. If it is to be extended, there would need to be a more robust debate on it,” he said.

Striking balance

Ms Martin said the reopening was about striking a balance between protecting public health and jobs in the hospitality sector.

The proof of vaccination or immunity requirement was a temporary system, with a “sunset clause” to kick in by the Autumn, at which point everyone who wanted to be vaccinated will have been vaccinated, she said.

Compliance officers would make unannounced calls to premises to ensure that the measures were being enforced. The officers would be from either the Health Service Executive or the Health and Safety Authority (HSA), she explained.

If breaches were observed then the Garda would be contacted, she said.

A working group including representatives from Fáilte Ireland, the HSA and the Department of Health will meet at 2pm to discuss the details of the plan.

Responding to the announcement, the Irish Hotels Federation (IHF) said the resumption of indoor dining was an "important milestone" in the recovery of the tourism sector.

Tim Fenn, chief executive of the IHF, said, "Public health remains the number one priority of hotels and guesthouses across the country."

Hotels had already been operating indoor dining safely for residents and were looking forward to “extending a warm welcome to non-residents in line with revised restrictions”, he said.

“One of our key priorities now is the opening up of safe international travel and yesterday’s announcement is a key part of that.”