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'Children will be able to get clothes': Taoiseach says retailers should take compassionate approach

The row over essential and non-essential retail items has been rumbling on since Level 5 restrictions were introduced last week.

A closed retail section of Dunnes Stores, Newbridge.
A closed retail section of Dunnes Stores, Newbridge.
Image: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie

Updated Oct 30th 2020, 5:01 PM

THE TAOISEACH HAS said that there are “ways and means” for people to access goods and services despite the closure of non-essential stores during Level 5 restrictions. 

Micheál Martin said this afternoon that people can call retailers and collect items they need, and he also added that retailers should take “a compassionate approach” to these issues.  

A spokesperson at the Department of Business has also said that retailers “can and have made arrangements on compassionate grounds”. 

The comments come after Junior Minister Damien English told RTÉ’s Prime Time programme that clothes are “not essential” purchases during Level 5 restrictions. 

English’s comments have led to a number of opposition politicians calling on the government to address the concerns. 

Asked today about the purchase of clothes for children, the Taoiseach said:

“Children will be able to get clothes, you’ve got click and collect, online, shop deliveries the Community Call.

“Nobody has stopped trading. Many shops are providing a service where you ring, make a call, and say you need X and Y and then you go and collect it then at the shop at a particular time.”

Shops do deliveries to people as well. There are ways and means of people being able to get access to a variety of goods and services through what I’ve just described. The first lockdown worked, and it was a more severe lockdown in many respects, and I think that’s the approach we’re going to adopt. That said, there’s always a compassionate approach to issues.

“But let’s go back to the big picture, the big picture is about Level 5 which is a blunt instrument to reduce gatherings and congregations of people,” he said. 

The Taoiseach also referenced the government’s Community Call initiative, which provides support to vulnerable persons for the collection of household items. 

In a statement, a spokesperson for the department said that retailers can still sell non-essential items through ‘remote ordering’ for delivery or collection. 

“Retailers can and have made arrangements, on compassionate grounds, for individual customers to purchase a non-essential item in store,” they said. 

This issue of selling non-essential items on compassionate grounds is an issue that has not just arisen today and it is understood that some retailers have been practicing it. 

Non-essential

The row over essential and non-essential retail items has been rumbling on since Level 5 restrictions were introduced last week. 

Essential retailers — supermarkets, hardware shops, pharmacies etc — are permitted to keep their doors open to customers during Level 5 restrictions which are to remain in place until early December.

Non-essential retailers — homeware shops, clothes shops, toy shops and the like — are only allowed to remain open if they offer online delivery or ‘click/phone and collect’ services.

However, some non-essential retailers have complained in recent weeks that essential retailers, many of them larger in size, are able to continue selling non-essential items, taking advantage of the fact that their smaller competitors have had to close their doors to customers.

The current retail guidelines are pretty cut and dried.

Where retailers offer a mix of essential and non-essential goods for sale, the business is required to “make arrangements for the separation” of the non-essential section.

That’s why if you’ve taken a trip to one of the larger supermarkets recently, you’ve probably seen the clothes or the toys section cordoned off.

The regulations are laid out in a statutory instrument, which came into force on 22 October.

That instrument provides for the “carrying on or provision of certain businesses and services” subject to a range of conditions.

Crucially, access to the general public is prohibited except in the case “where the premises is used to provide an essential service, provided that such access is granted, or otherwise permitted, only to such part of the premises as is operating solely to provide the essential service”.

Earlier today, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe defended the Government’s stance and said there has to be a “level playing field” for retailers.

He told RTÉ Radio One: “I have no doubt at all that if we were in a situation where a large retailer could still sell clothes and a small retailer could not sell clothes and had shut down, and had staff on the Pandemic Unemployment Payment and was closed because it couldn’t sell clothes, that in turn would raise issues that you legitimately would want to raise with me.”

“To be fair to all retailers, particularly small and medium sized retailers who sell clothes, we do need have a level playing field when it comes to the definition of non-essential goods.”

“I want to emphasise again that we are doing this because of the need to be fair to all retailers in our country, and because the objective is to reduce the type of contact that can affect people’s health,” he said.

Prime Time

The issue over the sale of clothes was raised again today after Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise Damien English said last night that clothes are “not essential” purchases during Level 5 Covid-19 restrictions. 

Speaking on RTÉ’s Prime Time, English acknowledged that despite there being a list for essential and non-essential retail during Level 5, it is difficult for a mixed-retail outlet that “is a bit of both”. But he said that the rules were “not confusing” and were clear. 

The conversation went like this:

English: “There is a list of what’s essential and what’s not essential and it’s difficult for a mixed retail [outlet] who is a bit of both.”

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O’Callaghan: “It’s very confusing.”

English: “No no, it’s not confusing. I think we’ve had this discussion on numerous occasions with the retail sector and, to be clear, to try to make it fair the difference now from last March is that all those clothes can still be purchased…”

O’Callaghan: “But Minister, hang on, are socks for your child essential?”

English: “Clothes are not essential. But again, of course in all situations, there’s a bit of common sense.”

O’Callaghan: “That seems mad, Minister.”

English: “Well, again, what’s essential, what’s not essential. The Gardaí are reinforcing the public health message, they’re helping us to do our job, they’re engaging with the retail sector, encouraging them to do the right thing. To be fair, I recognise that the retail sector is doing [its] best to get it right and if changes are needed there’ll be changes made.”

O’Callaghan: “So I can buy a bottle of wine but I cannot buy socks for my son?”

English: “Socks come under ‘clothes’, Miriam.”

O’Callaghan: “But people regard them as essential.”

English: “Exactly…everyone has their own view on [what is essential]. But to be clear…the whole aim to discourage the movement of people as much as we possibly can.”

In response to English’s comments, Social Democrats TD Gary Gannon said that children’s clothes “are very clearly essential” as schools are reopening on Monday after mid-term. 

“It is nonsense to close aisles in supermarkets that can additionally support these products and to do so, undermines public confidence in the restrictions as they very clearly seem unnecessarily harsh and obviously don’t in anyway stop the virus from spreading,” said Gannon. 

“The Cabinet need to quickly revisit this decision,” he said. 

- With reporting by Christina Finn and Rónán Duffy

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