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'We've had 3,400 cancellations in 3 weeks': Restaurants say Christmas trade has been 'decimated'

Businesses have called for cuts to the Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme to be reversed amid mass cancellations over Covid fears.

Image: Shutterstock

RESTAURANT OWNERS HAVE called for the Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme (EWSS) rates to be restored as they struggle with mass cancellations ahead of Christmas.

From yesterday, EWSS rates were reduced as part of a plan to gradually wind the scheme down.

However, many businesses and representative groups have called for this to be reversed, saying they are still feeling the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and struggling to pay staff.

The hospitality sector is among those worst affected as people cancel bookings amid growing fears of the Omicron variant and the possibility of more restrictions being introduced.

Gina Murphy, owner of Hugo’s Restaurant in Dublin city, said more than 3,400 bookings have been cancelled in the last three weeks as companies and individuals cancel Christmas parties.

“We’ve had 3,400 cancellations in the last three weeks. And that does not take into account the slippages, as in the parties of eight that go to four or the sixes that go to three. Those 3,400 are pure, full table cancellations (for bookings in the coming weeks).”

Murphy told The Journal the reduction in the EWSS rates on top of mass cancellations has been “horrendous”.

“We’re really just getting back on our feet and when I say just getting back on our feet, I mean in the last four or five weeks after nearly two years of being decimated. And that’s across the board in hospitality.

“Every business in hospitality depends on December to be able to carry through January, February, and March when there are traditionally no tourists or no entertaining. To have that wiped out, I do not know how we’ll all survive in January and February because we have no extra meat on our bones, we’ve nothing to fall back on.

“Just in the last few weeks, once we were allowed to go to tables of 10, the difference it made was huge. And everybody seemed confident that we could enjoy a safe Christmas now that a huge proportion of the country is now vaccinated. I think everybody thought that they were going to be able to enjoy Christmas because we haven’t for two years.

“I understand that people are being very good and following the CMO’s and the Government’s instructions, but unfortunately, no sooner had the CMO said we need you to restrict your social contacts when the phone started ringing and literally our entire Christmas has collapsed. So within three weeks we received 3,400 cancellations,” she said.

Adrian Cummins, CEO of the Restaurants Association of Ireland, confirmed that restaurants around the country are “seeing mass cancellations of corporate bookings”.

“Take office parties, for example. People are listening to public health advice and then voting with their feet. The messaging from Government policies is working from a public health point of view, but from an economic point of view is having a detrimental effect on businesses. Hence, we are in a very precarious position now because December has always been the moment where you build up cash-flow.

“Businesses are now – after a very, very precarious year – extremely concerned. We’re extremely concerned that come January and February, when you need that cash-flow, you won’t have it. They’re all petrified that their businesses are going to collapse. You have to work off of profit and loss. You don’t open your doors to keep making more losses.”

Cummins said the cuts to the EWSS rates yesterday has made a difficult situation even worse and also called on the Government to put more supports in place for businesses. He will make this point at a meeting with the Taoiseach and other ministers tomorrow.

He said the cuts came at “a crunch time where businesses are teetering on the edge”.

From 1 December, EWSS rates changed as follows:

  • The rate for an employee earning between €151.50 and €202.99 decreased from €203 to €151.50
  • The rate for an employee earning between €203 and €299.99 decreased from €250 to €203
  • The rate for an employee earning between €300 and €399.99 decreased from €300 to €203
  • The rate for an employee earning between €400 and €1,462 decreased from €350 to €203

Some 27,900 employers are currently registered with the scheme.

Last week, Ibec wrote to the Taoiseach to ask that the EWSS be extended until April and that it remain at the rates paid in earlier phases of the pandemic.

‘We’ve scarified our businesses’ 

As well as reversing the cuts to the EWSS, Murphy called on the Government to extend the Covid Restrictions Support Scheme (CRSS) beyond 31 December. Under this scheme, qualifying businesses can apply to Revenue for a cash payment of up to €5,000 a week.

Murphy said Taoiseach Micheál Martin and the Government need to show “a little respect for all the wonderful workers in our industry”.

We have sacrificed our businesses for the good of public health. We have supported everything that they have tried to do and now we need the support back. We cannot lose our hospitality industry, one in 10 people in this country is employed in tourism and hospitality but there is a lack of respect shown to them.

“I truly believe that some [politicians] think that we are staffed entirely by students and part-timers. And there couldn’t be anything further from the truth. We have skilled, trained professionals who are being absolutely disregarded and disrespected.”

Murphy said she lost over 20 staff members during the pandemic and the average age was 44. Many people had to turn to more “stable” industries, despite being highly skilled and wanting to remain working in hospitality, she told us.  

“The reason none of us can open seven days a week at the moment is because we lost so many staff. These are positions that cannot be filled by unskilled people. You can’t just walk into a commercial kitchen and think that you can pick up and know how to fillet a fish or make a sauce or cook things.

“It’s not like that, these are skilled people who have been trained for years to get where they’re at. The insult is putting these people on PUP [the Pandemic Unemployment Payment].

“These people earn €30,000, €40,000, €50,000, €60,000 a year, putting them on €350 a week is a disgrace. How are they supposed to survive? You can’t live in Dublin on that, you can’t pay a mortgage, you can’t feed a family.”

Murphy said that if the country goes into another lockdown the Government should set up a furlough scheme that is paid through the employers and “gives the employees a serious percentage of what they currently earn so that they can provide for themselves and their families, and stay loyal to the industry”.

Murphy said that people are unable to make a booking with a local restaurant, another practical way to help is to buy a voucher that will be used further down the line.

“The public’s support has been fantastic. What I would just encourage people to do is buy a voucher from a local restaurant or hotel, whatever, to try and inject some kind of cash flow into them so they will be able to last through January and February.”

‘Taking one for the team’

Speaking in the Dáil today, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said that the hospitality and events industries are “taking one for the team” in terms of cancellations as people cut their social contacts.

He said the Government will help businesses in these sectors with targeted supports and that decisions on this matter will be made in the coming days.

The Tánaiste told the Dáil on Thursday that the Government was waiting on the advice of the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) before making any decision on reviving financial support for struggling sectors.

NPHET is meeting today and is expected to discuss whether any fresh measures are required to stop the spread of Covid-19 ahead of the Christmas period.

In recent days, some politicians have called for the higher level of Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme (EWSS) payments to the hospitality and events sectors to be restored, as so many planned events are being cancelled.

Responding to a question from the Social Democrats’ co-leader, Catherine Murphy, Varadkar said: “Once the Government has received advice from NPHET, the Government will consider that advice and make a decision on its implementation.”

The Government will also have to make decisions on the Pandemic Unemployment Payment and EWSS, he told the Dáil.

“It is prudent to see what the advice is and how that will impact people and businesses. If it’s the case that people end up being laid off, or being made redundant over the course of the next few weeks, and I’m not saying that’s going to happen, of course we’ll need to respond to that.

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It wouldn’t be fair to say to them, some of them being laid off potentially for the second or third time, that all we have for you is the traditional job seekers’ payment.”
However, he cautioned against an “across-economy approach”.

He said that the EWSS costs taxpayers €40 million a month, which he said was a “huge amount of money”.

“I think it’s important that anything we do is targeted to the workers who may be affected and the businesses and the sectors affected, not necessarily an across-economy approach for sectors that may not need these financial supports anymore, which ultimately are very expensive.”

Murphy told the Fine Gael leader that businesses had already seen the effect of public health advice calling on people to reduce their level of socialising.

“People heeded that and heeded it in their droves. They have been cancelling Christmas parties and going to events,” she said.

“This was going to be the month that was going to help them through the lean months of the new year. There needs to be targeted supports for these particular sectors. We can’t afford to lose them, but they can’t afford to keep the doors open either.”

She called on the Government to commit to giving consideration to the industries that are already facing difficulties.

Varadkar said he was happy to give that commitment and said that he agreed with her analysis.

“How we realise that commitment or what form it takes will depend on the advice that we receive today from NPHET and it didn’t make sense to us as a Government to announce a set of financial supports for businesses on Tuesday, only to receive advice from NPHET on Thursday, and then change again on Friday.

“It made sense to wait until we see what the advice from NPHET is today. We’re at that point where we will be able to make decisions in the next couple of days,” he promised.

Contains reporting from PA

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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