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How does Ireland's approach to reopening pubs compare to other countries?

Ireland is the only country in Europe in which pubs that do not serve food are still fully closed.

LAST WEEK’S DECISION not to allow pubs to reopen at the end of August has cemented Ireland as the country with the longest Covid-related closure of its bars in Europe.

Their continued closure has been a point of contention ever since restrictions began to lift early this summer. 

The government has said that maintaining the closure of pubs that do not serve food is a necessary public health measure. However, small business owners have questioned the extent to which their pubs pose a risk.


The government’s roadmap plan – published in early May – had said that some pubs could reopen on 29 June – but only if they served food, and only with table service. 

The reopening of other pubs was at one time, after much debate, expected to take place on 20 July after the date was brought forward from 10 August. 

The requirement for pubs serving food to serve a “substantial meal” costing at least €9 was introduced and was expected to last three weeks until the pubs that did not serve food – known as ‘wet pubs’ – were allowed to reopen.

The 20 July date for wet pubs turned into 10 August, and then 31 August, and that has now been pushed back indefinitely.

Professor Philip Nolan, Chair of NPHET’s Irish Epidemiological Modelling Group, said this week that people will have to attend pubs in small numbers when they do reopen.

shutterstock_219752554 Temple Bar, Dublin Shutterstock / Madrugada Verde Shutterstock / Madrugada Verde / Madrugada Verde

Following confirmation that pubs, bars and nightclubs would not be allowed to reopen at the end of August, the government announced a €16 million support package for the sector – but the funding was criticised by stakeholders, who say it does not go far enough in supporting businesses.

Ireland is the only country in Europe in which wet pubs are still fully closed.

European approaches 

So how have other European nations managed since they reopened the doors of their pubs and bars? Does the reasoning behind delaying the reopening in Ireland hold up?

Half of the EU’s member states had reopened pubs by May, followed by most others in June.

Pubs in England reopened on 4 July, in Scotland on 15 July, and in Wales on 13 July.

Portugal waited until August to reopen its pubs, while some countries, such as Sweden and Latvia, never closed pubs in the first place. 

In Northern Ireland, the situation is similar to the Republic – wet pubs remain closed, and the date for their reopening has been pushed back.

Most countries employed the sort of additional measures you might expect as pubs reopened. 

These included social distancing, limits to opening hours, the wearing of face coverings, and outdoor-seating only for a period of initial reopening.


At the start of August, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said that the decision to delay the reopening of wet pubs for a second time was based on “international evidence” suggesting that reopening could cause Covid-19 cases to rise.

The latest data from the HSE says that there have been five Covid-19 outbreaks in pubs in Ireland since the beginning of the pandemic. 

In Estonia, eight bars in the city of Tartu closed for a week in August after dozens of new cases were reported in the city, many of which were linked to nightlife.

Spain introduced a local lockdown on 70,000 people in Galicia in July as regional health minister Jesus Vazquez Almuina said that outbreaks were linked to several bars in the area. Capacity in bars and restaurants was reduced to 50%.

On 22 August, South Korea decided to shut bars and nightclubs as the number of reported cases saw a triple-digit increase for the ninth day in a row.

shutterstock_163310876 Seoul, South Korea Shutterstock / Sean Pavone Shutterstock / Sean Pavone / Sean Pavone

Earlier in the summer, South Korea, which previously had largely contained infections, saw bars and nightclubs ordered against hosting crowds of people after a cluster linked to one person came into contact with up to 1,500 people at several venues.

The Irish government said its decision to delay the reopening of pubs for a second time beyond 10 August was guided by evidence of outbreaks associated with pubs or bars in other countries.

document released by the government detailing the evidence it used to justify the delay cited outbreaks in Australia, the UK, Spain, the USA, Canada, and South Korea.


Let’s take a closer at how Scotland, which is geographically close to Ireland and has a similar pub culture, has handled the reopening of pubs.

The Scottish government launched a recovery roadmap in May which indicated the phases in which pubs and restaurants would be allowed to reopen.

The roadmap advised that pubs and restaurants could open outdoor spaces with physical distancing and increased hygiene routines in Phase Two, and indoor spaces with the same measures in Phase Three.

It is understood that there was a feeling among pub owners that the roadmap did not provide sufficient clarity on what the reopening of pubs would look like.

The pubs were allowed to reopen outdoors initially and then return to “indoor hospitality” subject to physical distancing rules on 15 July.

The reopening of pubs differed across the UK. While pubs in Scotland and Wales reopened outdoors first, pubs in England reopened fully on 4 July.

The disparity was particularly acute in areas sitting on the English and Scottish border, where punters could visit a pub indoors on one border side but not on the other.

Outdoor operation of pubs brought its own set of challenges for owners, such as the impact of poor weather on trade or concerns that customers would try to run indoors if it rained and breach social distancing.

shutterstock_1660518829 Aberdeen, Scotland Shutterstock / Atmosphere1 Shutterstock / Atmosphere1 / Atmosphere1

Indoors, some smaller pubs have needed to close or limit access to certain areas where social distancing would be difficult to maintain, such as narrow corridors or staircases.

Speaking to, Professor Gary Macfarlane, Dean of Research and Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Aberdeen, said that “many people feel that the Scottish Government approach has been extremely cautious”.

“However, in retrospect, there is an argument that pubs opened too soon in Scotland and should have been a lower priority,” Professor Macfarlane said.

A pub in Aberdeen, Scotland was closed after 32 Covid-19 cases were linked to it at the end of July, including two staff members.

Covid-19 cases in the area spiked, with 226 cases linked to the Aberdeen cluster over the following three weeks.

Aberdeen was put under a local lockdown, which saw pubs and restaurants shut and restrictions put on travel and household visits.

Professor Macfarlane said that alcohol and maintaining social distancing “potentially don’t mix very well”.

“Pubs pose a risk in that they will host (potentially large) groups of people,” he said.

As was seen in the cluster of cases in Aberdeen which led to re-imposing a local lockdown, the source of the outbreak were pubs in the city.”

“In addition, the Aberdeen outbreak demonstrated that persons visiting several pubs were a contributory factor to the size of the outbreak.”.

Professor Macfarlane said that this happened “despite the fact that licensed premises had generally put in place control measures suggested by the Scottish Government”.

He said that the virus is less likely to transmit outdoors, so there is a case to be made for initially opening outdoor spaces before indoor ones.

The bottle or the blackboard

At the start of August, there were warnings in the UK that pubs might need to close in order for schools to reopen safely.

Professor Graham Medley, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said that closing other areas of society might be a necessary trade-off to prioritise the reopening of schools for the health and wellbeing of children.

“It might come down to a question of which do you trade-off against each other and then that’s a matter of prioritising, do we think pubs are more important than schools?”

Ultimately, pubs in the UK remained open as children returned to school.

In Ireland, similar discussions were raised around the reopening of schools and the reopening of pubs, both of which would have opened around the end of August if pubs had been allowed to open their doors again.

On 12 August, Leo Varadkar said that he would be seeking to introduce additional supports for pubs and nightclubs if it “is the case that on 28 August that we’re saying to the pubs that you have to stay closed for a bit longer, at least until we see how things go with the schools and with the virus”.

When it was announced last week that wet pubs would not be allowed to reopen, Varadkar said that the government’s priority over the preceding weeks had been to reopen schools successfully.

What’s next for Ireland’s pubs?

Speaking to Pat Kenny on Newstalk on Wednesday, Health Minister Stephen Donnelly said that “the aim is to get pubs open as early as possible”.

And while there’s no clear date yet, it’s understood that there is a push within government to open pubs by October or earlier.

Instead, the restrictions on serving food alongside alcohol are being added to with a new rule that requires restaurants and pubs to keep a record of all customer information, including food orders, for 28 days.

Chief Executive of the Vintners Federation of Ireland Padraig Cribben said the rule was “bureaucracy gone mad”.

“Not only is it too impractical for our members to implement but why does the Government think this law will help in the fight against Covid? It’s madness,” he said. 

Yesterday, Taoiseach Micheál Martin indicated that the regulations may only last for a short period and may become redundant when the new Covid-19 roadmap is published on 14 September. 

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