A number of Ministers are exasperated at the latest self-inflicted controversy for the Government after poor communications and confusion prompted furious criticism of its plan to require pubs and restaurants to retain individual records of meals eaten for up to 28 days.
Political sources said the controversy over the rules reflects the absence of a coherent new plan to deal with the Covid pandemic through the autumn and the winter, although one is promised for September 14th.
Restaurateurs and publicans reacted with fury on Thursday evening to a new Statutory Instrument which requires them to retain individual records of meals eaten for up to 28 days.
The new regulation was signed off by Cabinet on Tuesday and was designed to aid gardaí bringing enforcement measures against premises that are not in compliance.
Several senior and junior Ministers contacted by The Irish Times on Friday agreed to some extent with representatives of the pub and restaurant industries that the rules were introduced without forewarning, there were no guidelines around their operation, and the communications around the new rules were lacking.
“It is the latest in a series of self-made calamities,” said one senior Minister, speaking on the understanding of anonymity.
“At this moment in time, we are dealing with mistake after mistake. The Government has not done what it needs to be doing and that is a new plan for Covid
“We are applying rules to a system and a roadmap that is already out of date. We need a comprehensive plan on how to deal with the new phase of the outbreak and I’m glad the Taoiseach (Micheál Martin) has said it will be ready by September 14th.
“Right now, we are responding to everything in a piecemeal fashion.”
Speaking in RTÉ radio's News at One, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said he did not understand the reaction of the Opposition and members of his own Government to the regulations.
“I don’t understand why there’s a problem. The regulations were published online on Tuesday.”
He said pubs and restaurants are already keeping a til receipt for VAT purposes and these receipts are kept for up to six or seven years; the regulations mean they just need to make it available for inspection for 28 days.
He also said that the new regulations would help enforcement against “the tiny minority” who were flouting the rules.
Another Minister from the Fianna Fáil side said the controversy had been overblown and the obligations on pubs and restaurants would not be as onerous as were being portrayed.
“They will not be tracing whether or not I had a lasagne two weeks ago,” said the Minister, There is a logic to it. All it will need to do is show that the party all had meals and you can get that from the till receipts which need to be retained in any instance.”
“I know there is an active focus on anything that is said around Covid. But the criticism is a little bit unfair and simplistic,” said the Minister.
The Government and the Department of Health have moved to clarify the requirements in the statutory instrument, and to reassure pub owners and customers that named, individualised, records would not be required.
A spokeswoman for Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly, who issued the regulations, said: “The record can be anonymised. It is not intended to link any customer with any meal. People have conflated this requirement with the separate contact tracing requirement of the (lead member of a party) giving their name for tracing purposes.”
Another Minister said the sudden announcements of new measures without finessing them, or discussing them with stakeholders, had happened too often in the past month.
“The question it raises is whether Fianna Fáil is rusty after being out of government for so long.
“The pace you need to communicate internally and externally has hugely changed since they were last in Government. They are not at the pace and that is one area where they are falling down.”
Industry representatives said there was still confusion around the regulations despite the clarifications and there was still no advice on how they should be interpreted.
"There has been a lack of communications," said Adrian Cummins, CEO of the Restaurant Association of Ireland. "After the Cabinet signed off on Tuesday they should have explained what they were trying to do and the rationale behind it.
“As it is the wording of the Statutory Instrument is confusing. It requires the premises to make a record of each member of a party and what they have eaten. That will need to be changed.”
Pádraig Cribben, CEO of the Vintners Federation of Ireland said it was a classic case of the Government dropping a bombshell with no guidance as to how to deal with it.
“They told nobody. There is no clarity. We have been given no interpretation. It seems to me that those premises that are serving only pizza to barely fulfil the requirements will find it much easier than those who serve full meal,” he said.