Wednesday, 2 December 2020
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 2 together.
Last Friday, the Government agreed the approach for easing restrictions, including a phased move to level 3 nationally, with several exemptions in place for the Christmas period. These exemptions are designed to support people in having a meaningful Christmas, albeit different from other years. The main objective is to stay safe and to keep the Covid-19 case numbers down so that we can maintain the lowest possible level of restrictions into the new year. People are advised to plan their activities in advance, to limit their contacts during this period and to keep celebrations small.
It is also advised that being outdoors is safer than being indoors, and to ensure good ventilation when indoors with other people. From 1 December, households should not mix with any other households outside their bubble. People should stay within their county, apart from work, education and other essential purposes. People should continue to work from home, unless it is absolutely necessary to attend in person. No indoor gatherings should take place. Gatherings of up to 15 people may take place outdoors. Non-essential retail and personal services may reopen. Hotels, guesthouses and bed and breakfasts can reopen, with services limited to residents only. Museums, galleries and libraries may reopen. Cinemas may also reopen.
Gyms, leisure centres and swimming pools may also reopen for individual training only. No exercise or dance classes are permitted. Non-contact training may take place outdoors in pods of 15. No matches or events may take place, except for professional and elite sports, approved inter-county Gaelic games, greyhound and horse racing and approved equestrian events, all of which must happen behind closed doors. Public transport capacity is limited to 50%. Places of worship can reopen for services with restrictive measures, subject to review in January. Weddings with up to 25 guests are permitted. Funerals with up to 25 mourners are permitted. Higher, further and adult education should remain primarily online.
From 4 December, restaurants, and pubs operating as restaurants, may reopen for indoor dining, with additional restrictions, including requirements for meals to be prepared on-site, inside the premises. This includes access for non-residents to restaurants and hotels. Wet pubs remain closed, except for takeaway delivery. In recognition of the importance of the holiday season, particularly regarding visiting family, from 18 December to 6 January households can mix with two other households and travel outside of one's county is to be permitted.
From 7 January, the measures put in place prior to 18 December will apply, subject to ongoing review of the trajectory of the virus. The measures for cross-Border travel will be the same as for travel between all other counties, which means that from 1 December people should stay within their county, apart from work, educational and other essential purposes, while from 18 December to 6 January travel outside one's county is permitted. It has further been agreed that the use of face masks is now recommended in crowded workplaces, places of worship and in busy or crowded outdoor spaces where there is significant congregation.
I thank the Taoiseach for repeating all that. Yesterday was obviously a big day and Friday will be another big day. Regarding the trajectory of the virus, we do not know what that will be, obviously, but consideration might be given to when the Government is going to make some announcements concerning 6 January. I am not asking the Taoiseach what he is going to announce, just when that will be done. Will it be on 1 or 2 January? How much time will be given in respect of where we will be going from then?
The tourism sector is in major trouble. We can see that from what the chief executive of Fáilte Ireland, Paul Kelly, said today at a committee. I must declare that I used to work as a manager in Fáilte Ireland, so I know the sector well. Being realistic, the tourism sector is not going to get back to anywhere near where it was until 2022, at the earliest. It could be even worse. What additional supports are being looked for that sector?
An issue, which was touched on earlier and relates to the committee the Taoiseach has set up - I would like what I said in that context regarding a Minister to be considered - is that that committee will make recommendations to the Taoiseach, or whomever. The committee also needs guidance, however. I stress two things in this regard. The first is that the IT infrastructure is not what it needs to be and we need to create it. We have had problems in respect of creating a public service card. There have been data issues in that area, so how are we going to ensure we overcome those issues in this scenario? The second concerns the Covid-19 passport, the technology behind it and, most important, the rules behind that-----
Deputy Kelly, I try to be fair to everyone. That is not fair, so I am just going to overlook it. I really try to give everybody a little bit of latitude, but there are many speakers. I am going to move. I call Deputy Boyd Barrett.
Even if there is a lifting of restrictions, one sector which is not going to see any significant recovery in its ability to earn an income involves people in music and many of the performing arts. The Taoiseach may have heard a controversy breaking out regarding the 1,400 applicants for the music industry stimulus package. Of those 1,400 applicants, some 83% were refused. That was insulting and demoralising for those musicians who applied for the package, many of whom are household names. That does not really matter, because they all deserve support since their industry has been, and will remain for the foreseeable future, decimated as a result of the pandemic. Only a miserable €876,000 was put into that scheme, so right from the outset the majority of musicians were going to be excluded from it. That is in addition to the fact that most musicians, artists, performers and SMEs involved in that industry have been excluded from the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS. Is the Taoiseach going to do something to give real support to the artists, musicians, light and sound engineers, etc., whose livelihoods have been utterly decimated? The supports given have simply not been enough.
The Government has been at pains to reject the idea that its Covid-19 strategy has been informed by the interests of short-term private profit. It is now 100% patently clear that is what is informing, or at least partially informing, the approach of the Government.
Yesterday the Taoiseach told the Dáil that "we took a more conservative approach on the household visits, and then traded that off with visits to hotels and restaurants". In other words, the Government rejected the NPHET advice to prioritise what is essential for people at Christmas, which is visits by people to their families, broadly defined. They had recommended that starting from this week one could have household visits and that for the two weeks around Christmas one could have visitors from three other households. The Government rejected that. Why? So that it could open up restaurants and gastro pubs. It is plain as day that this is what the Government decided to do. In doing so, it put profit first. It put profit before people visiting their families at Christmas, which is essential. It also placed the whole country in danger, in my opinion, with excess cases, deaths and a third wave in January, for which the Government is preparing the population as if it was absolutely inevitable, and a third lockdown that will be incredibly demoralising for people to go into. That is a consequence of the choices the Government has made to bend to the pressure of private sector business lobbying.
I understand and it is no problem. I have previously raised with the Taoiseach the specific challenges facing the commercial events sector. The sector accounts for approximately 90% of the five million events tickets each year pre-Covid, which in ordinary times delivers a significant stimulus for hospitality and tourism.
The event production industry Covid-19 working group, known as EPIC, has worked positively to highlight these challenges and to find suitable solutions to operating within public health guidelines. I acknowledge the Taoiseach’s engagement with EPIC and his recognition of the contribution of the arts and culture sectors to our society and economy.
Following the Taoiseach’s announcement on the lifting of restrictions, questions have been raised about the decision to reopen cinemas but not theatres. When asked to explain the differences between the two settings the Chief Medical Officer stated that theatres were not provided for in level 3 and that NPHET had not given consideration to distinguishing between the risk in the two settings.
Adherence to public health guidance is paramount, but as we have discussed on a number of occasions, providing the rationale behind these decisions is of the utmost importance. People need to understand the reasons behind the decisions that have such an impact on their daily lives and on their livelihoods. It would be helpful at this point if the Taoiseach could provide the rationale for the continued closure of theatres.
I will address question on the tourism sector first. Deputy Kelly correctly identified that the area will need a significant reboot after Covid-19. In the interim we are doing everything we possibly can to keep the edifice of our tourism sector intact through the variety of schemes we have introduced, including the employment wage subsidy scheme, the Covid restrictions support scheme, the pandemic unemployment payment and a variety of other restart grants, low-cost loans and commercial rates waivers. There has been a plethora of initiatives to try to underpin companies and business in the tourism sector. There will be a national economic plan, which is being developed, that will target the tourism sector. The budget will take on board the more than 30 tourism recovery task force recommendations in revitalising this sector as we emerge from this crisis. That plan will take us out to the next five years. Tourism is related to travel and to people's decision-making around their reluctance to travel right now. We have done everything we possibly can over the past while to try to do what we can to support businesses to get them through this very difficult period and to support our airports and connectivity infrastructure.
We will be keeping the trajectory and prevalence of the virus under review. We will keep the public updated on the next steps. As I have said, however, on the 6 January we will be going back to the pre-18 December position of level 3.
Deputy Boyd Barrett instanced the music and performing arts sector. The Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Mediawill deal with that issue. I do not get into the micro-operation of schemes. The Government wants to be as fair and transparent as possible in any allocation of funding. I will see that this will be done. I know the Minister is of a similar view. Quite a range of supports have been given to the arts through the Department of Social Protection and the Department Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, and very significant additional resources were provided in the budget.
I must take issue with Deputy Paul Murphy in his warped interpretation and distortion of what I said yesterday. The Government is not genuflecting to short-term profit. I do not know does the Deputy represent at all the workers who are desperate to get back to work in the hospitality sector. They want to get back working and are concerned about the long-term sustainability of their jobs. They also want to be back at work. The Government is supporting the economy by €1 billion per week and underpinning work in the economy. Mental well-being is also a consideration. The Central Statistics Office research is very revealing in that regard. There was a whole balancing range of factors that gave rise to the decision to reopen restaurants and hotels from 4 December onwards. It was not about short-term profit. Deputy Murphy is so ideologically trapped that he is blinded to the everyday reality of the person on the street, the people who are out there working and who want to earn money for Christmas. The Deputy is so ideologically trapped that he cannot see the wood for the trees. The Deputy sees everything through a narrow, warped ideological frame. It informs every comment and statement he makes. His assertion was just wrong.
Deputy McDonald asked about cinemas and theatres. Again, what we were trying to do for the Christmas period was to have modifications of level 3 to help people to get through the period with a reasonable quality of life. This included galleries, museums and cinemas because they were not adjudged to be centres where the virus could spread, especially given the previous experience with cinemas. The problem with theatres is pinpointing what is or is not a theatre. We can all think of the obvious ones but it is a bit more complicated when one considers the various venues that present themselves, and with alcohol and so on. That is problematic in the decision-making on that. A call was made that cinemas, which would not add to the spread of the virus, could for the period of December open for people to get some break and some respite.
I have met with representatives from EPIC and we will work on that and engage with the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media.