Government fudge on outdoor events will cost it dear

Intent of regulations was clear, even if technicalities provide an escape clause

When you are in a hole, the best advice is to stop digging. But the Government kept shovelling all week. It left its biggest mistake until late in the day. The decision to issue a statement on Wednesday evening quoting the Attorney General as “advising” that regulations allowed up to 200 people to attend outdoor events “including social, recreational, exercise, cultural, entertainment or community events” was a serious miscalculation.

In a bid to try to gloss over Tánaiste Leo Varadkar’s attendance at a controversial function hosted by former minister Katherine Zappone the Government has seriously undermined its own authority.

Already it has had to change the official guidelines in relation to big events in response – weeks earlier than would have happened otherwise – so as to let on that this was what it always intended.

Let’s get real here. The regulations quoted in the Government statement – part of a statutory instrument applying from the start of July – were not intended to apply to sit-down gigs outside a hotel.

Now the guidelines are being rewritten – allowing organised outdoor events at hotels and restaurants – because the Government has to pretend it wanted to allow these all along

Otherwise, with the Government desperate to get people off the pandemic unemployment payment and back to work, they would have been put up in lights for the hotel and restaurant sector.

All week, while Ministers kept themselves out of sight –until the Tánaiste's appearance on RTÉ last night – Fine Gael politicians were sent out to talk about inconsistencies, miscommunications and misunderstandings. But there really weren't any.

Everyone knew what the regulations were meant to achieve, even if the wording of the statutory instrument provided a legal escape clause for an embarrassed Tánaiste and Government.

Now the guidelines are being rewritten – allowing organised outdoor events at hotels and restaurants – because the Government has to pretend it wanted to allow these all along. It is not quite Boris Johnson’s Freedom Day – and some of the rules, such as no intermingling between tables, look impossible to implement – but the restaurant and hotel lobbies are happy to play along.

The context of this is, we are told, is the “advice from the Attorney General,” referred to solemnly by Government politicians as if it has brought some great new insight that has somehow changed things. But all the AG did was read the statutory instrument quoted above and told the Government what it said.

In relation to the Zappone event, the Government – and the hotel – argue that it was legal as it was a “social” event, one of the categories referred to in the statutory instrument. That is the law.

Turning away business

Where does this sit with Fáilte Ireland guidelines in place when the dinner was held, limiting table size to six adults? The Merrion Hotel said it stayed within these guidelines and that there was no reference in them at that stage to banning organised outdoor events. The rest of the industry, however, had been turning away similar business. The Citizens' Information website refers to "groups of six people" eating outdoors.

A couple of days after the Merrion gig, held on July 21st, Fáilte Ireland issued new guidelines for hotels designed to update for the changing picture. Under the headline “meetings/events” it states baldly that “organised events are not currently permitted”. These guidelines were issued in consultation with Government officials – presumably the same officials as were involved in drawing up the new statutory instrument.

A few statements from the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sports and Media point to what was surely the real intention of the changes made in the statutory instrument.

In a note at the end of May, when these changes were first slated in by the Government, it referred to organised outdoor events and references “culture & arts, training, sport events and matches”. Wouldn’t you have thought that the department responsible for tourism might have mentioned hotel events, if they were indeed intended to be permitted?

Instead it said the changes due in July “provide for a maximum of 200 attendees for the majority of venues and a maximum of 500 attendees for outdoor stadia/ other fixed outdoor venues with a maximum accredited capacity of 5,000”. A later note, published shortly before the new rules came in on July 5th, referred to “a maximum of 200 attendees for the majority of stadia”.

Whatever the legalities, it seems the clear understanding was the relaxed outdoor restrictions were intended to apply – for now, anyhow – to matches and other events where people could distance. Not for sit-downs outside hotels. Otherwise there would have been a string of Government statements pointing this out.

Think, too, of the restaurant and hotel owners who have suffered so much over the past year. They are now told they could have been having large events outdoors after all

Trying to fudge around this is costing the Government. There has been some confusion about what is law, what are guidelines and what is public health advice since the pandemic hit us. But broadly people have understood and accepted what they are expected to do – and have done it – notwithstanding the obvious contradictions at times.

In the wake of this mess, we are getting a loosening of the rules which simply would have not happened for another few weeks if this controversy had not happened. These changes are driven by politics, not public health advice. Government credibility in implementing restrictions is undermined by the extraordinary cynicism of what it has done.

And what is the impact on the general compliance of the population when they perceive an “us and them” gap in how the rules are observed?

Think, too, of the restaurant and hotel owners who have suffered so much over the past year. They are now told they could have been having large events outdoors after all. Except that no one was really confused in the first place.

As Adrian Cummins, chief executive of Restaurants Associations of Ireland, tweeted this week, would the industry have been alerted to the ability to hold large events outdoors if this controversy did not happen? I think we all know the answer to that one.