Government’s new Covid-19 roadmap can’t come a day too soon

In some cases the Government is going to have to ‘play God’ and decide which businesses survive

 Stephen Donnelly: despite the furore over new record-keeping rules for pubs and restaurants, the  Minister for Health says wet pubs must have a chance to reopen as soon as possible. Photograph: Alan Betson

Stephen Donnelly: despite the furore over new record-keeping rules for pubs and restaurants, the Minister for Health says wet pubs must have a chance to reopen as soon as possible. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

The skirmish over the new record-keeping rules for pubs and restaurants is just a warm-up for the fights and tensions to come as the national Covid-19 policy moves into the next crucial phase of trying to live with the virus.

The furious reaction was a sign of the pressure on the hospitality sector – and the lack of communications and crazy wording of the proposed regulations. If the Government just wanted pubs to keep till receipts, then that should have been the clear message from the start. And it wasn’t.

But the “who ate chicken wings” row will soon be forgotten as bigger battles lie ahead. The Government’s new roadmap on living with Covid-19 for the period ahead , promised for publication on September 14th, can’t come a day too soon. We need to understand what the national strategy now is and on what basis the vital balances will be struck.

It seems there has been a shift in recent weeks – at the end of August, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar was saying he couldn’t guarantee the wet pubs would reopen before 2021.

Now Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly is saying they must have a chance to reopen as soon as possible. The roadmap can’t have all the answers, but we urgently need some context on where we go next.

In terms of the economy, the Government’s tactic so far has been to throw out serious amounts of money – through wage subsidies, the pandemic payment and a range of other measures. It has cost a bomb but has been the right thing to do. But as we reopen, even though we are doing so cautiously by international standards, our virus numbers are rising more rapidly than many other countries

The price of this has been the continuation of some relatively tight restrictions – closed pubs, telling people to continue to work from home where they can and advising against overseas travel . If these restrictions continue, the economic cost rises. But of course if we move recklessly the virus numbers will rise even more rapidly – and we will be back with a lockdown threat.

So let’s not pretend the Government has an easy job here. The politics are potentially toxic because it will become clear over the autumn that some businesses which have been kept going by cash support from the exchequer are not going to make it , while others will continue to do fine. There will be winners – or at least survivors – and losers.

Never reopen

And in some cases the Government is going to have to “play God” and decide who survives. And who doesn’t. There will fierce battles here in the weeks and months ahead.

Take the so-called wet pub sector, for example. Even if the pubs are allowed to reopen, many of people will still choose not to go – and the tourist market is gone, for now anyway.

If Temple Bar was allowed to reopen tonight, the pubs would be half-empty. Blanket support will continue into next year, but do we need to accept that some pubs will never reopen and the sector will shrink in size? If so, how does the State help staff to retrain? Should we be considering grants to help some pubs add kitchens?

And these questions apply, in different ways, across all the vulnerable sectors. Take aviation, a mission critical industry for our economic future.This sector will shrink,too – but we have to find a way to safeguard vital connectivity.

As the report of the Taskforce for Aviation Recovery, commissioned by the Government, put it : “Ireland cannot function as a closed economy without permanent damage being done. Our economy will not survive on the basis of a blanket policy of “essential travel” only.”

Some form of testing and tracing for passengers is clearly part of the way forward. The task force also recommended liquidity supports for the industry and support for the regional airports. Again, we are moving beyond blanket guidelines to try to find some way forward.

And the Government also needs to make a vital call in relation to city centres. If it continues to tell everyone to work from home when they can – including public servants – then our big centres will remain half-empty, with big consequences for local businesses.

It would not be clever to tell everyone to return on Monday and have jammed trains and buses. And working from home at least part of the time may well be part of the future for those of us lucky enough to be able to do it. But we need some kind of a roadmap here.

If we are going to have to live with the virus for a lengthy period, we better get used to it and plan for it. As well as savings jobs and giving businesses some clarity,planning could also help to open up some positive ways forward. The pandemic has a huge fall-out for city centres – but it offers opportunities to look at making them more pleasant and environmentally friendly places to work and live.

Working from home will suit many people – and should give the opportunity to allow more people to live in rural Ireland. Assistance to business, particularly big businesses, can be tied to regional goals – for example obliging airlines to operate regional routes.

There will be tough calls too, The Government can’t endlessly prop up insolvent businesses. Governments like to keep things as they are and avoid people losing out – and this won’t be possible in all cases.

Fortunately, large parts of the economy continue to operate and generate resources and borrowing is cheap – so we have some financial leeway. But it won’t be easy. The row over keeping a list of who had chicken wings and who had pizza will be quickly forgotten as we head into all this.

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