Thursday, 25 February 2021
Health (Amendment) Bill 2021: Second Stage (Resumed)
We are talking about mandatory quarantine which should have been implemented for people entering this country long before now. I called for it last April or May, although I have not checked my records in that regard. The reason I called for it is that I come from a constituency with a high volume of tourism. I felt at that time that for me to give confidence to the people of west Cork, we had to have PCR testing of people coming into our country. I called for it at that time but the then Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, refused. I was on the Covid-19 committee and called for the move there but it was continuously refused. As Deputy Nolan just said, we are closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. We are, unfortunately, trailing and falling behind and it is going to cost our country very dearly.
I was talking to a gentleman who came in from the United States recently. He was in Dunmanway in west Cork. He said that he thought the rules and restrictions here would be as good as they are in some other countries when he came home to see his mother. He would not go straight home. He made sure that he rented a car that was full of fuel so he would not stop on the way to Dunmanway. He made sure that the Airbnb he booked for 14 days would be full of food for that length of time so he would not have to go out. He could not believe that when he came here he did not have to do any of that. He could have stopped on the way down and gone anywhere he wanted. He could have called in to see people. He could have been at the shop the next morning and it would not have mattered a damn. He was astonished to think that we had such lax laws and that has, unfortunately, proven very costly.
While I agree that all people other than essential workers need to quarantine when coming into the country, I still have serious concerns that the fallout on our hotel sector will be detrimental. Many in the hotel industry in west Cork have contacted me to voice their serious concerns. The all-important summer trading period could be in jeopardy. That period serves as a life buoy to sustain a business through the other months of the year in normal times. If hoteliers' opportunity to earn money at that time is eroded, additional Government supports will be critical to their survival. It is now make or break time. We need to secure urgent Government action to protect the long-term viability of the Irish tourism and hospitality community. The hotel industry needs a Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, to target businesses with a 75% drop in revenue. I suggest a doubling of payments irrespective of the level of Covid restrictions, as well as the removal of the current €5,000 weekly cap. It is estimated that 44% of hotel bedroom stock is excluded from CRSS entirely.
The limit of €5,000 equates to an annual turnover of €4.2 million or 58 bedrooms per hotel. Hotels need an extension of the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, to the end of 2021.
I ask the Government to intervene with the banks for businesses that are in a serious crisis to ensure that concessions-based moratoriums are provided for tourism businesses and their teams until the restrictions are lifted. There should be a clear commitment to the retention of the 9% rate of VAT for the tourism sector, until at least 2025, to assist with recovery and to provide certainty for businesses in the sector. We need fast action. The Minister is at the Cabinet table and he must ensure that his colleagues are singing the same tune. There should be a refund of energy pass-through charges of 70% on State-controlled fixed-energy network charges for gas and electricity in line with the drop in energy consumption and hotel revenues due to Government restrictions. This must be backdated to the start of October 2020.
The Government must fight for an extension of the local authority waiver on rates for tourism businesses until the end of 2021. It must ensure that clear progress markers are put in place to support the change in restrictions. Aside from hotels, so many businesses were left out of the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS. The wedding industry, which I mentioned recently, is on its knees. Pubs are also on their knees. Restaurants have been closed for nearly 12 months since March 2020. Many of these services will never reopen and many of the people working in them will not have jobs to go back to. Last night I spoke to a woman who works in a retail business in a town in west Cork. She asked me if I think she will have a job to go back to when the level of restrictions eases. My answer to her was that I do not know.
The most important issue we will have to face is people's psychological well-being. Some people who live alone have had their lives upended for the past 12 months. While they may put on a brave face, issues of isolation arise. Some have serious financial issues and that is not helped by the banks turning down loans to people because of the industry they work in. Unfortunately, this is an all-encompassing problem that goes well beyond the financial. The upheaval we have all faced has been tremendous. To be candid, it is not just hospitality, it is everyone in the service sector.
We are talking about mandatory quarantine, but we must look at the rules and regulations and there must be a line of appeal. We must have an appeals mechanism in the laws we are implementing. There is a difference between what Ministers say and what happens on the ground. A few months ago I asked the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, in the Dáil if students could travel from their homes to their accommodation. To be honest, she was sarcastic and argumentative. She lacked any knowledge of the travel restrictions at the time. From what she told me, students could travel to their accommodation. She asked me not to be causing problems that are not there. When I passed on her so-called advice to a certain student in west Cork, the student then travelled to her accommodation. The bus was stopped en routeby the Garda and they severely reprimanded the student and told her they had better not catch her on the bus again. The Minister of State obviously did not have her facts right. That is the type of confusion and lack of communication from the Government, which has gone on for too long and has led to people being scared and angry. People are able to fly into this country but at the same time people cannot travel beyond 5 km from their home due to the rule in that regard. There is a lack of clarity in the restrictions, largely due to the fact that the Government has no idea what it is like for regular people on the ground. A couple of weeks ago-----