Thursday, 11 November 2021
Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
104. To ask the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht the position regarding and her views on the reopening guidelines for nightlife and entertainment; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [54840/21]
In its decision of 19 October 2021, the Government agreed that the remaining aspects of the hospitality, entertainment and night-time economy sector could reopen with a full range of protective measures in place and the wide and robust implementation of the Covid-19 pass. My officials and I have been engaging with the various sectors to address some of the challenges faced throughout the past 20 months in the run-up to the Government's decision and also following that decision. This extensive stakeholder engagement has resulted in the production of an updated set of guidelines for nightlife and entertainment to provide for the safe operation of the sector, as Covid-19 is still circulating in our communities. The guidance contains a range of advice, including on ventilation, hygiene, management structures, face coverings and so forth.
In light of the epidemiological situation that has emerged over the last number of weeks, it is imperative that we carefully manage reopening. The Government's aim has been to allow as many businesses as possible to reopen in the safest possible way. This is why we need regulations and robust guidance to assist businesses to reopen safely and, importantly, to stay open. Central to these guidelines is a commitment to adhering to best practice in infection prevention control measures which are necessary to protect individuals and society, as well as supporting our continued progress towards a full return to the operation of various sectors. Compliance with these measures should not be considered best practice but rather the minimum standard required to protect our communities. Individual businesses must proactively risk assess their premises to calibrate mitigation measures in a bespoke way for the business.
Covid-19 infection rates have been increasing, along with hospitalisation and ICU admissions, but thanks to the exceptional levels of engagement with the vaccination programme we were in a position to continue our careful and gradual approach to reopening. However, we must redouble our efforts to protect ourselves, our families and our communities. The night-time economy sector, which includes so many businesses, has been patient and was one of the last sectors to return. The sector has worked very constructively with my Department, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and other Departments in developing and implementing the relevant guidelines and regulations. This engagement is continuing with a view to safeguarding public health while ensuring we continue to move forward with reopening.
First, we all welcome the reopening of hospitality, nightlife and entertainment, but I am sure the Minister will agree that the rise in the number of cases in recent weeks has been particularly stark. We cannot blame this on any single sector but, clearly, the reopening of hospitality has had a part to play in that. We also cannot ignore that mask wearing requirements are very lax in nightclubs. People are exempt if they are dancing, but that is what one does in a nightclub. It is one thing if it is happening when everybody is fully vaccinated but some premises are not asking for Covid vaccine passes and in others, people are using passes that do not belong to them. What is the Minister going to do about non-compliance? Has she made particular recommendations regarding non-compliance to ensure we curb the spread of Covid-19 and allow the reopening to continue?
As the Deputy knows, the HSE and the Health and Safety Authority, HSA, are the relevant bodies under the indoor dining regulations which came into force on 26 July 2021. Since the reopening of the night-time economy from 22 October 2021, compliance officers from the HSE have been undertaking checks, with an initial emphasis on the nightclubs and late bars. This included 123 inspections undertaken between 8 p.m. and 1 a.m. on the initial bank holiday weekend, where overall compliance was generally found to be good. A further 50 inspections took place on the weekend of 29 to 31 October covering retail, cinema and related areas. As for the night-time economy, compliance officers from the HSE have been engaged in compliance checks in the night-time sector since 22 October and over the initial bank holiday week over 40 teams of compliance officers undertook checks focusing on the hospitality service sectors, particularly pubs, restaurants and late night venues. Nightclubs in Dublin, Cork and Galway received particular attention. In the engagement this week with the hospitality and nightclub sectors and in further engagement with the arts and culture sector, I believe leadership is being shown by the industry on this. The sectors realise the real risk. Everybody needs to be on board on this in order to keep their livelihoods safe, to keep business reopened and to protect public health.
What sanctions can non-compliant businesses in food and hospitality expect if they are not adhering? Regarding the percentage that is complying, the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, revealed last week that the percentage of people not having Covid certificates checked in pubs was 37%, which is quite high, and it was 34% in restaurants. That is quite serious given the way things are going. Again, what sanctions are there for businesses in food and hospitality that are non-compliant? Also, would the Minister support the call for a helpline for members of the public who do not feel safe in an environment where they see that Covid passes are not being checked or health guidelines are not being adhered to? Would she support that not only for patrons but also for workers in those environments?
Regarding the calls for a hotline, where a person has a concern that the requirements of the regulations are not being complied with, he or she may communicate this via the HSE live helpline on 1800 700700. It should be noted that anybody doing so would have to press number 3, which is the other issues category. It might be useful to tailor the helpline to allow members of the public to report specific instances in a more targeted manner. This is something we will communicate to the Department of Health, as the HSE is under the remit of that Department. It will a subject of discussion between officials in the Department of Health, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and my Department.
Regarding what happens when there is non-compliance, the fines have been set out but, ultimately, there is the threat of closure. We are appealing to businesses that are not checking for certificates, because it is not fair to the other businesses and it is not fair for public health. For both reasons, to protect public health and to help the businesses that have been through such a tough time to keep their businesses open, everybody should abide by the rules.