The Government has come under criticism for a lack of ambition to reopen the events and entertainment industry earlier in the summer.
Immunologist Prof Paul Moynagh has said he does not understand the reasons to continuously delay opening up while vaccination rates are high.
Prof Moynagh said because of Ireland’s vaccine uptake Covid-19 case numbers are now “likely to be as good as they are going to get” in the coming months and “that should be reflected in some of the things we are thinking about”.
Speaking on Newstalk Breakfast, he said vaccines were doing what they were supposed to do, protecting people against serious illness and hospitalisation, however, infections would persist as the vaccine could not give total immunity.
The Government should have been more ambitious with reopening earlier in the summer, said Prof Moynagh. “Were we seriously saying we were going to open up things at the beginning of September when schools were opening, and universities, and we were heading into the winter months?
“Things do not get easier and we need to be up front about that.”
Prof Moynagh said pilot events, such as the concert at the Iveagh Gardens that took place in June, had been pointless as they were set up with no risk, as concert-goers were separated into pods to ensure different groups were socially distant.
The pilot events should have mirrored what could actually happen in reality and tried “to capture and reflect that risk and put in place and evaluate measures that would mitigate that risk”, he said.
“We are at the stage now where we have certain sectors that need help and need support and need to begin opening up that probably should have been opened up earlier – I think we need to look at that.”
Meanwhile, Covid-19 adviser to the Irish College of General Practitioners Dr Mary Favier has said while the vaccine programme has been “hugely successful”, Ireland’s way out of the pandemic needs to be phased, structured and based on evidence.
“What we do over the next number of weeks will have a very significant influence on that, so it’s caution, but in the long term an optimistic future,” she said.
Dr Favier said ensuring schools open in September and getting students back to university “is a really important priority for all of society”, and then we can “sequence on to other things and the wider community”.
“GPs would have seen the huge impact of the closure [of schools] both on children themselves in terms of their education and socialisation, teenagers, social isolation, not being able to network, mental health issues,” Dr Favier said. “The impact on parents trying to look after children, trying to homeschool – it was a huge cause of anxiety and stress.”
Fianna Fáil Senator Malcolm Byrne has called on Minister for Arts Catherine Martin to publish her plan for the live events sector, saying it is “not acceptable” that no strategy or timeline was in place.
Ms Martin submitted a plan with dates for reopening to the Cabinet subcommittee on Covid-19 earlier this month, but it was not adopted. She sought an invite to Thursday’s meeting of the subcommittee, but her request was rebuffed.
She wanted to make representations to the committee on behalf of the arts sector, which is seeking a firm date for the reopening of the industry.
Government sources said it was normal practice that a line Minister would attend the subcommittee when issues relevant to their sector were being considered, and that Ms Martin may attend in this context next week.
Mr Byrne, who sits on the cultural panel and often advocates for the artistic sector, said the Government “needs to get its act together on the arts and live events sector and the Minister needs to take a lead by outlining her plan publicly”.
Mr Byrne said: “It is not acceptable that there is not a clear strategy with a timeline in place. If we can get sports stadia and indoor hospitality open, then we need the same focus on theatres and venues: that they can open in a safe manner. We have ben looking for this for months,” he said, adding that the situation is “really frustrating”.
Fine Gael TD for Galway East Ciarán Cannon – who is part of a cross-party group of Oireachtas members which has been liaising with the live entertainment sector in recent months – said Ms Martin should be supported by Cabinet colleagues to get the sector back to work.
“The same level of flexibility that has been afforded to sporting events also needs to apply to the entertainment industry,” he said, adding that Ms Martin has a “deep understanding” of how the sector works.
Mr Cannon also said that the current levels of Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) should be maintained until such time as musicians are allowed to return to work.
“One would assume that lowering PUP payments might be seen as an incentive for people working in other sectors to return to work, as the opportunity to return to work now presents. But that’s not the case for musicians, they are being prevented from returning to work, and their mortgage/rent/household costs remain the same. They are not jobseekers. They have a job, but are not allowed to resume that job right now. It’s a completely different scenario,” he said.
The Event Industry Alliance had called on the Government earlier on Thursday to allow Ms Martin sit on the subcommittee, after it expressed disappointment over the lack of progress in deciding a date for the return of live events.
Speaking on RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland, spokesman Dan McDonnell said: “We do feel sorry for Catherine Martin and the position she is in, but it’s just not good enough from our point of view. We were deeply disappointed about how it was left yesterday and the short of it is that there is no progress being made.”
Mr McDonnell said the entertainment sector, which employs 35,000 people and was worth €3.5 billion, had been pushing for some time for cross departmental collaboration on its return.
He said the alliance had been disappointed that Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly did not participate in the virtual meeting on Wednesday, although he acknowledged that they sent representatives.
It was important that there be ongoing meetings, Mr McDonnell said, adding that Ms Martin had agreed to meet again next week.
He said the health and safety of workers and audiences remained a priority for the sector: “If we don’t look after them we don’t have a product.” Every thought process took health and safety into consideration, he added.
Concerns over reopening the live entertainment sector were raised in Government on Wednesday as senior officials were told the peak of the current Covid-19 wave is expected to come later than anticipated.
Government sources pushed back against Ms Martin on Wednesday night, saying they were following public health advice with each decision in relation to reopening.
Elsewhere, the Restaurants Association of Ireland has asked that vaccine certificates be removed due to high levels of vaccination in the general public.
In a document sent to Fáilte Ireland, the association also said that all social distancing requirements should be removed, which they claimed result in a capacity loss of 40 per cent.
The trade group said sanitation, ventilation and C02 monitors would help mitigate the risk of Covid spread.
Similarly, it has asked that the set closing time of 11.30pm be removed, which it said has resulted in a “loss of a last sitting time for approximately 50 per cent of restaurants who would run a late sitting during weekend periods”. It also argued that this closing time puts additional pressure on public and private transport systems.