Thursday, 15 October 2020
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
Covid-19 Pandemic Supports
19. To ask the Minister for Trade, Enterprise and Employment the steps being taken to address urgently the crisis facing businesses and traders in Dublin city as a consequence of significantly reduced customer footfall, an absence of tourists and the operation of a remote working regime; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25954/20]
This is an unexpected opportunity. I raised this matter at a meeting of the Committee on Budgetary Oversight but obviously circumstances have changed. Provisions have been made to support businesses, particularly in the three counties forced to lock down. There are serious issues arising regarding retail footfall in Dublin city. In the Convention Centre, I gave the example of PricewaterhouseCoopers, which was next door. It used to have 1,500 desks but only 100 are now in operation. The guidance is now to work from home where possible. That is the context of the question.
I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. I appreciate that the context has changed but it will change again. One of the features of the pandemic we might not have anticipated months ago is the enormous impact it is having on our city centres and some town centres. The suburbs of Dublin are quite busy but footfall in the city centre is really low. Businesses with a high-cost model, often involving the payment of high rents, covered their costs through high turnover but they no longer have a high turnover and are really struggling. Calling into sandwich shops and small businesses around the city centre, I am really struck by how much their turnover is down. It is down phenomenally and I am very worried about it. Addressing this involves providing the assistance we are giving the businesses through the various packages with which the Deputies will be familiar. We will need to have a workable plan for our city centres to get people back to offices in a safe and blended way when we can, to reclaim the streets for a bit more outdoor dining, to have some more space for people to sit outside businesses, and to facilitate cyclists and pedestrians. The various city councils are wise to this and are working on it.
I thank the Minister. I acknowledge he is aware of the issue and I welcome his response. He will be aware that, at the start of the pandemic, remote working was embraced as a new, ground-breaking concept that would change the world. It is now recognised that employees probably need a blend of remote working and participation in the workplace. Is there work ongoing in this regard? Are there any studies or research on how we could safely blend the two approaches? It is good for people's mental health to socialise and physically meet their colleagues.
I warmly welcome what the Minister is saying about the city. I generally come into the city every Sunday. It is good, a long ramble. Businesses will provide outdoor opportunities when they are encouraged to do so. We must be fair to the city council in this regard. It is a lot safer to dine or have a cup of coffee outdoors. We could do more in this regard in the cities, including on the side streets.
Remote working has had an impact on the newsagents, coffee shops and sandwich bars. We welcomed remote working with open arms at the start. Will the Minister give the House some idea as to what is going on in the background in regard to remote working in the medium term?
On remote working, there have been some interesting surveys of people who are working remotely. Roughly speaking, approximately 10% to 15% are dying to get back to the office full time. About 10% to 15% want to work from home permanently. There is a large majority in the middle, amounting to about 70%, who would like blended working. I believe that is going to be the future. It involves people going to headquarters for necessary meetings or training one or two days per week and working from home or a remote hub on the other days. We need to facilitate that, including through the national broadband plan, investing in remote hubs in rural towns and villages, in particular, and a new legal framework. We have engaged in public consultation on this. I have not fully made up my mind on it yet but a framework is probably required on a right to request remote working or home working and a right to switch off so we do not end up at work always when we are at home. It feels a bit like that already in our line of work but that is not the way it should be. It is also a matter of ensuring how people can have some of their home and remote working costs covered. This was partly covered in the budget in that people working from home can defray any vouched expenses, including the cost of broadband.