Rural TDs voice anger over decision to keep pubs closed

Leo Varadkar said reopening depends on Covid-19 numbers as he faced angry TDs

Leo Varadkar: This was a plan that could be paused if things were going offline. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

Leo Varadkar: This was a plan that could be paused if things were going offline. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

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The Tánaiste faced condemnation from rural TDs after he warned that pubs may remain closed beyond August 10th, the new date for the easing of the Covid-19 restrictions.

Leo Varadkar said that pubs, nightclubs and other venues will open “no sooner than August 10th. We are not saying they will open on August 10th”.

He stressed that it depends “on how the virus behaves” and the numbers of coronavirus cases which were rising he told the Dáil as he faced angry rural TDs who condemned the decision on Wednesday based on public health advice to pause the move to the next phase.

Independent TD Michael Healy-Rae described the decision not to allow pubs to open as “crazy”, a retrograde step and very unfair to publicans, especially rural publicans who felt they were being blamed for the actions in urban pubs. He said they had been given the impression that they could re-open.

Independent TD Michael Collins warned that “illegal pubs are opening up” and there were increased numbers of house parties and the decision needed to be reversed.

Stock

Independent TD Mattie McGrath said publicans had bought stock and were now down thousands of euro while Independent TD Michael Fitzmaurice said the vast majority of rural pubs had a maximum of four of five people in them at any time.

Mr Varadkar acknowledged that it was a “hammerblow” to publicans and he too had been looking forward to “freedom pints” next week but it would not be possible because the incidence of the virus had increased in Ireland.

He stressed however that “we made it very clear on day one, that this was a plan that could be accelerated if things are going in the right direction; could be paused if things were going offline and reversed if needed be. We were always up-front about that from day one”.

During a heated leaders’ questions in the Dáil at the Convention Centre, Mr Healy-Rae asked Mr Varadkar to explain the difference between a person “in a public house with a pint of Guinness in this hand, and a toasted cheese sandwich in this hand, and a person inside another pub with a pint of Guinness and no toasted cheese sandwich”.

He added that “there’s an awful difference between Dame Lane and Ballinskelligs and Dame Lane and Portmagee or any other place in my constituency”, in reference to the large gathering of mainly young people without social distancing, outside pubs on the Dublin city centre lane.

And he said the message was going out internationally that “you can come to Ireland from a hot spot but you can’t have a hot drop”.

The Tánaiste, who is Minister for Enterprise, said however that the increase in cases “has not been largely due to international travel despite all the focus on it”.

“It’s been 90 per cent due to our own behaviours, people in close contact with each other in confined indoor spaces” and “as a result of that we’ve seen a number of clusters, often linked to house parties and social engagements”.

He said the evidence from China, from Asia is that “actually it’s not outdoor gatherings for example like what happened to Dame Lane – which shouldn’t have happened – where the virus spreads.

Confined spaces

“It’s actually indoor small confined spaces with 10 and 15 people passing it to each other through close contact and being together for a prolonged period of time, and that is house parties, that is small pubs”.

It was also potentially restaurants “if restaurants act as if they are pubs and concentrate more on selling alcohol rather people having their meal, a bit of alcohol and getting out within an hour and a half”.

Earlier Sinn Féin finance spokesman Pearse Doherty asked if the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) had been asked to consider the re-opening of premises on a regional basis to allow pubs not selling food to open with strict social distancing requirements.

The Tánaiste said Nphet have not been asked to advise on that and “the problem is that when people are consuming aclohsol it is very hard to maintain social distancing” and pubs are ultimately in the business of selling alcohol.

Vintners

Vintners groups warned any decision to further delay reopening pubs and bars beyond August 10th would be a “doomsday scenario” for the sector.

Donall O’Keeffe, chief executive of the Licensed Vintners Association (LVA), which represents Dublin pubs, said publicans preparing to reopen had “the rug pulled out from under them” on Wednesday.

“Most had done rosters for next week, they had product in the cold rooms, they had restocked the bar,” he said.

Members were “bitterly disappointed” with the setback of at least three weeks, which would push several businesses “closer to the edge,” he said.

Mr O’Keeffe said “doomsday” was not strong enough to describe the threat facing the trade if pubs were unable to open on 10th August.

Padraig Cribben, head of the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland (VFI), said house parties would “go wild” as around 3,500 pubs across the country remained shut.

Any further delay to the pubs reopening would be a “doomsday scenario” and heap “devastation upon devastation,” he said.

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