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'There is a short window to get this done': Talks on the reopening of indoor dining set to resume today

Cabinet will meet on Tuesday to discuss the final proposals.
Jul 8th 2021, 12:05 AM 23,208 77

TALKS ARE SET to resume this afternoon between government and representatives from the hospitality sector as part of efforts to bring about the return of indoor dining.

A number of options are said to be on the table following a similar meeting on Monday, when those attending were told that indoor dining could possibly reopen for 1.8 million fully vaccinated people under a new vaccine pass system.

Government sources state this is just one option out of six possible scenarios under consideration.

Today’s meeting is expected to examine each of those options, how they would be implemented, and who would be responsible for enforcing them.

A source told The Journal that the proposed re-opening is “still a work in progress”, but that it is likely to be in line with advice from the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET), which says indoor hospitality should return for fully vaccinated people only.

However, the same source said there was a possibility that antigen testing could be used at a later point.

Ireland is currently the only country in Europe where indoor dining is not open.

Indoor dining and drinking had been set to recommence in pubs and restaurants this week. However, Taoiseach Micheál Martin last week confirmed this would be delayed due to concerns over the Delta variant.

Cabinet is set to meet again next Tuesday, 13 July, to discuss the final proposals arising from today’s meeting.

Speaking yesterday, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said he could not say for certain that Ireland will be able to implement any proposals that are discussed at today’s meeting on 19 July.

“We are working on a number of options at the moment and we would hope to bring proposals to Cabinet next week,” he said.

‘Short window’

Speaking to The Journal ahead of today’s meeting, Adrian Cummins of the Restaurants Association of Ireland (RAI) said the majority of the group’s members want to reopen indoors, but that NPHET remain “the kingmakers” on any decision that would allow this.

He also said approximately 20% of the group’s members want to hold off on a return to indoor dining, and reopen instead when everyone can do so.

“You’re never going to get 100%… but that’s well in a minority, the rest want to open,” said Cummins. 

The meeting today will be “critical”, he said, adding that there is a “short window to get this done and dusted”.

“There’s really only one option on the table to get us open immediately, or NPHET won’t allow us to reopen, as NPHET won’t sign off on it. They’re the kingmakers in all of this,” he said.

He also claimed that the vaccine pass system “is not perfect”, but that it will enable around two million people in the country to eat indoors.

Cummins said that one question that will be asked today is whether the system is legal and not discriminatory, and if the Attorney General has signed off on it.

With the number of people who vaccinated going up each week and some predictions that mass immunity against Covid-19 could be reached by the early autumn, it has also been suggested that the vaccine pass system could be done away with then.

Antigen testing

But concerns have been raised within the hospitality industry that pubs and restaurants could be asked to self-regulate the reopening of indoor dining sing the vaccine pass system.

There is said to be apprehension about the possibility that pubs and restaurants could only allow bookings for those with a vaccination certificate, with some smaller rural businesses saying they would not have the capacity to implement such a system.

The use of antigen testing will also be discussed today, as there have been calls for Ireland to follow a number of other countries in allowing rapid testing to facilitate the return of indoor dining.

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It is believed this would avoid a situation that prevents those who are not fully vaccinated from going indoors, which would happen under the current NPHET proposals. 

This week, the government announced that Professor Mary Horgan will carry out a report into the expansion of antigen testing into areas, including the hospitality sector.

While many in government are anxious to see indoor dining return as soon as possible, concerns have been raised about NPHET’s recommendations, and the disparity that they could create.

In practice, NPHET’s proposals would prevent those who are still awaiting on their second dose of a vaccine, including those in older age cohorts, from dining or drinking inside.

When asked about the prospect of testing being used to allow the industry to return, Varadkar confirmed the measure was under consideration. But he highlighted that there could still be problems if rapid testing was introduced.

“I should be frank and say there are difficulties with it, we wouldn’t have the capacity to carry out tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands PCR tests for people to go to a restaurant or a pub, we just don’t have that capacity in the system,” the Tánaiste said.

Yesterday, the Rural Independent Group argued that the government’s plan for a vaccine pass would discriminate against un-vaccinated people.

The group claimed forcing un-vaccinated people to dine and drink outdoors would be an unconstitutional restriction of a person’s right to bodily integrity and personal freedom under the Constitution.

TD Mattie McGrath said such a system “makes no logical sense” and is “an infringement of human rights”.

He said it will “pigeonhole a selective group of individuals and grant those people greater freedoms and liberties than unvaccinated ones”.

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Christina Finn

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