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Schools are open, pubs are next: Government aims to reopen pubs 'as early as possible'

Ireland is the only country in the whole of Europe where pubs remain closed.

The government's priority has been getting schools reopened, but ministers say plan for pubs must be next.
The government's priority has been getting schools reopened, but ministers say plan for pubs must be next.
Image: Shutterstock/VanderWolf Images

Updated Sep 2nd 2020, 12:55 PM

REOPENING THE PUBS is high on the agenda of the government as the Dáil returns from the summer break. 

The Licensed Vintners Association (LVA) said yesterday that thousands of pubs face defaulting on their mortgages if the government does not step in.

Over 3,000 so-called ‘wet’ pubs – those not serving food – remain closed across the country after they were forced to close their doors almost 25 weeks ago.

While some pubs that serve food reopened with restaurants, the doors of others, many of them family-owned remain closed. 

Last week, Government said it was setting out a €16 million rescue package for pubs across the country. This package has been derided by the LVA.

With new Garda powers due to be legislated for to allow for pub closures and sanctions for those that break public health rules, it is believed there is an incentive now and enough safeguards to look at reopening pubs.

Speaking to Pat Kenny on Newstalk this morning, Health Minister Stephen Donnelly agreed that the new laws will put manners on the rogue pubs that are flouting the rules.

“The aim is to get pubs open as early as possible,” said the minister.

Donnelly said pubs have been “hit incredibly hard” by the pandemic and have been left in an awful situation having been closed for months.

He acknowledged that he and his government colleagues are very aware of that. It is important to get the pubs open both for the sector and for society, said Donnelly.

Yesterday’s 217 Covid-19 case numbers were the highest daily figures since 14 May – though it also marked the longest stretch without a death being reported since the first fatality in mid-March.

While 51% are associated with outbreaks/close contacts of a confirmed case, only 19 are from community transmission – a number that is important, say Government sources, who pointed out that the last time 220 cases were reported there were over 70 people in ICU, while it is averaging five or six now.

They also highlighted that yesterday marks ten days in a row there have been no Covid-related deaths.

The government’s priority over the summer was always the safe reopening of schools. While cases and possible outbreaks are no doubt inevitable, it believes the systems are in place to handle them.

While returning the health service to normal is top of the agenda, reopening pubs is also a priority due to the sector bearing the brunt of long-term closures.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar pointed out last week that Ireland is the only country in the whole of Europe where pubs remain closed.

Varadkar said he couldn’t put a date on when pubs would be allowed reopen, but added that they should be given a chance to show they can adhere to the public health guidelines.

He said clusters in pubs have been very small to date.

“I would like to see them being given a chance,” he said.

“Ireland is the only country in Europe where wet pubs are fully closed. In most countries, they are open with some restriction and we’re examining exactly where that can be done and we’re building on, I think, very good compliance from the restaurant’s sector where we’ve only seen one significant cluster out of very many,” said Varadkar.

However, Varadkar said any changes to allow pubs reopen would be dependent on the case numbers.

The Taoiseach asked NPHET last week to draft protocols and guidelines that would allow for the safe reopening of pubs.

‘Pub must be sorted’

“We will have to sort the pubs next after the children get back to school,” said one minister, who added that publicans are very “disillusioned”.

This minister said that reopening schools safely is the government’s number one priority but said publicans were rightly asking why every other country has been able to reopen pubs and bars.

The National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) wants people congregating as little as possible, they said. 

Yesterday, Professor Philp Nolan said that restrictions on indoor gatherings “will be with us for some considerable time” and that people will have to attend pubs in small numbers heading into winter – if and when they reopen.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, Chair of NPHET’s Irish Epidemiological Modelling Group Nolan said that it is too early to say if recent restrictions permitting six people to gather indoors and 15 people outdoors has reduced transmission of Covid-19 but that he is “cautiously optimistic”. 

However, the thinking within the government is that like other countries, Ireland should be able to work within a safe system that will allow pubs to reopen.

Countries around Europe

In Germany, bars and pubs reopened on 2 June. Under the rules, people must be seated at tables or at the bar (standing is not allowed), and seating must be designed in a way that maintains the 1.5-metre distance between different groups. There are no limitations on opening hours.

Germany has a 14-day cumulative number of Covid-19 cases per 100,000 of just over 21. 

In Italy, which was one of the countries impacted the most by coronavirus, reopened its bars in May.

Staff wear masks when serving customers, and tables are placed apart. Many bars take a person’s temperature before they are seated. In recent weeks, the country did have to re-close nightclubs for three weeks due to a rise in young people getting the virus.

Italy has a 14-day cumulative number of cases per 100,000 of over 24.

Meanwhile, Ireland’s 14-day incidence rate has reached over 31 – and Ireland has not reopened pubs and bars since March, said one minister.

No deaths and hospitalisations remain low

“Cases are rising all over Europe, such as Portugal, Spain and France – but the number of people actually getting sick and requiring hospitalisation has not gone up,” they said.

Some government sources have questioned why NPHET’s advice has become more “hardline” than before and has diverged from the European norm and the World Health Organisation’s guidance on issues such as outdoor gatherings, public transport, international travel and bars reopening.

They said everyday businesses are closing their doors for good, pointing out that the three-month hit to the economy, as was previously envisaged, is one thing. A nine to 12-month hit is quite another.

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It was made clear that long-term permanent damage to the economy and society, and by extension everything else, like sustaining our health service, is at risk if the wrong decisions are taken now.

In backing up their reasoning for not reopening pubs a number of weeks ago, NPHET presented a paper to government that it said provided international evidence that pubs have been linked to clusters. 

The evidence released cited 12 news sources including RTÉ, BBC and the Guardian.

The advice goes on to cite a number of cases in Spain, Australia, the United States, Canada and Korea where clusters emerged in bars. 

The reaction from publicans was one of shock, that news articles, rather than research papers, were being used as a basis for keeping their businesses closed.

Spikes in numbers inevitable

There had been high hopes in July that pubs would be able to reopen, but then the numbers spiked in areas such as Kildare, Offaly and Laois. While these clusters can largely be explained by the outbreaks in meat factories, the planned reopening of the country stalled.

At the time, some ministers said NPHET was not overly keen on the reopening of pubs, and with the cases rising they had a strong case of arguing against it. It was apparently pointed out that clusters will throw the numbers and this could be the new normal for years, and therefore might not be the way forward in terms of keeping businesses closed. 

The mood at Government level at the time was that they would not fight for the pubs as schools were more important. 

But schools are reopening this week and the focus on returning to normal as much as possible is the focus.

A number of sources have raised concerns about NPHET doctors and scientists giving their opinions so candidly on the public airwaves when their role is to advise government and for Cabinet to make decisions. 

There have been concerns raised that it is not helping, as accusations of mixed messaging continue.

A senior government source said “it is a government decision at the end of the day… government will decide once proper protocols are in place”.

The priority has been getting schools back first, they said but suggested that hopefully a decision will be made “very soon”.

The Rural Independent Group has today criticised the government for keeping pubs closed.

Kerry TD Danny Healy-Rae said it is “scandalous” that the Government is “criminalising and victimising” pubs.

“I’ll give em hell!” he said, stating that the number of cases in rural Ireland remain low.

Michael Healy Rae said government’s around Europe have deemed it safe for pubs to reopen a long time ago. “Why are we different?” he asked.

He said pubs should be given a chance to prove that they can open safely. If it is a failure, revise the plan, said the Kerry TD.

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