Tuesday, 23 November 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Covid-19 Pandemic Supports
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Cheann Comhairle as ucht an deis seo a thabhairt dom an t-ábhar seo a phlé anocht. I acknowledge the message I had from the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, that she could not attend the debate.
In the context of the current wave of Covid infections, our hospitality and night-time entertainment sector is once again at the forefront of the response. Many people are changing their plans, as has been acknowledged today by the Chief Medical Officer, CMO, and the sector is bearing the brunt of that. To give an example, I am aware of a small restaurant that has had 2,324 cancellations in the past two weeks. That is being replicated right across the country in restaurants, hotels, nightclubs, theatres and music venues. A specific response is needed to the situation they face in the coming weeks. These are not just any weeks; the weeks that make up the Christmas period sustain the hospitality and night-time entertainment industry through the quiet months of January, February and March. The money that is earned now pays the bills during that time and allows businesses to build up again. The current situation requires a specific response, including a commitment to extend the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, and the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, to sustain businesses through the period.
There is also a need for a firmer discussion around the response to where hospitality finds itself at this stage in the Covid crisis. Are we serious about hospitality in Ireland or are we taking it for granted? Are we gong to invest in training for the industry to provide the skills that are needed? Is the view prevailing, as has been expressed by some members of the Government in recent times, that there are loads of jobs in the industry, even though that does not recognise the skills needed within the sector? People cannot simply be moved around and skills are being lost to the industry. Employees are moving out of hospitality, tourism and late-night entertainment into other areas of the economy. Their skills will be lost and cannot easily be replaced. When international and domestic travel comes back, when we eventually put Covid behind us and once again look to tourism, hospitality and late-night entertainment to rebuild our lives, those skills will be gone.
We need a specific, tailored package in place for late-night entertainment specialists, including sound and music technicians. We also need a package of key employee supports in order that restaurants and hotels can retain employees such as chefs, whose skills are limited but necessary. They need to be retained within the hospitality industry. I know of chefs who have moved into catering in manufacturing, manufacturing itself or retail because there is certainty around employment. There must be an immediate response to the particular crisis being faced by hospitality and night-time entertainment, which is occurring as we speak. I referred to cancellations for the Christmas period, which include cancellations of late-night events. We also need a whole-of-government response that will put hospitality on a new setting, make it ready for a post-Covid world and ensure the skills are in place to make it an attractive sector in which to work. The industry also must respond by providing certainty and offering wages that are fair, decent and reflective of the modern economy. However, it cannot do that on its own. A partnership approach is needed.
I have been saying for a long time that we need some sort of specific training mechanism, such as that provided in the past by CERT. In its time, it did a wonderful job of providing training, preparing people for careers and offering life skills for workers in the hospitality and night-time entertainment industry. It is time we had a commitment once again to a body such as CERT. I look forward to a response from the Government. We will not have instant solutions this evening but there needs to be an awareness of how urgent the situation is for the many thousands of people employed in the industry.
I thank the Deputy for the opportunity to address the House on this matter this evening. As he is aware, the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, was unable to attend and asked me to stand in on her behalf. I want to start by acknowledging on a personal level that the challenges being faced by our hospitality and entertainment sectors, both currently and over the previous months, are severe. It is a difficult time for many, particularly those working in these industries. As a Government, we recognise the difficulties and are doing everything we can to support these important industries. While the ongoing public health situation is continually evolving and a recent deterioration saw the introduction last week of a requirement for Covid-19 passes for cinemas and theatres, as well as a midnight closing time for all on-licensed premises, we are optimistic these measures will allow businesses to keep operating and keep people at work.
Throughout the pandemic, the Minister, Deputy Martin, and the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment have been actively working with the tourism and hospitality sector to ensure it is properly supported. The significant additional funding secured for tourism services in budget 2022 will help to address immediate survival-related concerns while also enabling further resilience and recovery across the industry as we reopen to international tourism and transition to a more sustainable future. The Deputy referred to the situation for the domestic tourism sector by instancing the case of a single restaurant having nearly 2,400 cancellations. That is a phenomenal blow to any business. The funding for tourism in budget 2022, amounting to €288.5 million, represents an increase of €67.6 million over the 2021 allocation. It includes €50 million for further tourism business continuity supports to assist strategic tourism businesses with their survival and recovery. The 2022 funding is in addition to the €55 million in tourism business continuity supports that were made available this year. By the end of the year, hundreds of tourism businesses will have received vital funding to help them survive the impacts of the pandemic and hundreds more will again receive support in the coming year. In addition, a further €35 million increase in the tourism marketing fund has been secured in 2022 to enable Tourism Ireland to support the delivery of a marketing strategy to restore inbound tourism to Ireland. A sum of €36.5 million is also being provided in capital funding for tourism product development for the delivery of enhanced visitor experiences, in line with the objectives of the national development plan.
The supports for tourism also include a range of cross-government measures to assist the sector.
Tourism enterprises continue to benefit from measures such as the continuation of the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS. Every hotelier and person operating restaurants whom I have met has said to me that the scheme was a lifeline for their business over the previous months. It kept employees connected to the business. It helped them to be able to continue. Some of them mentioned the rates rebates they received when they were closed as a key factor for those who had a rateable premises. The tax warehousing for commercial rates and the 9% VAT rate for hospitality remain in place until September 2022.
We also had a number of other programmes in place, such as the €25 million live performance support scheme, the €16 million events sector Covid-19 support scheme, the €10 million local private performance support scheme, the €4 million music and entertainment support scheme, the €5 million commercial entertainment capital grant and the €1 million provided for the St. Patrick's Day festival. There are no certainties with this virus, but the Government will continue to engage with stakeholders in a positive way to ensure the relevant concerns are addressed in the decision-making process. The Government wants to continue to support this sector and ensure it is given the opportunity to thrive again.
I acknowledge the Minister of State’s response. Many of the commitments are welcome. The sector acknowledges the support that has been received and the importance of that support. Many commitments the Minister of State mentioned are macro. They are for the overall industry. It is essential that we have commitments very soon that the EWSS and the CRSS will be continued after 1 December at their current rates. The VAT level changes on 31 August ahead of September. It seems rather silly to have two different VAT years for one calendar year, particularly in tourism and hospitality. Ireland is growing a reputation for autumn and early winter tourism. The industry does not have the certainty to market that. It needs certainty. As I said, no small business could sustain 50% cancellation rates in two weeks. The cancellations had begun before the restrictions to which the Minister of State referred were announced. They began with the overall messaging that was coming from NPHET in particular. The cancellations affect restaurants, pubs, Christmas parties, events and concerts. The musicians to whom the Minister of State referred are being absolutely hammered because their ticket sales have been cancelled. They need an urgent response in the coming days and weeks. Many of the supports the Minister of State mentioned are macro. The industry may not be there to benefit from them unless we get a response in place.
Finally, the EWSS should be expanded to protect key employees within hospitality, such as a chef, a particular barman or a skilled technician within an events company. The link between that company and the employee, as the Minister of State said, should be protected. The link between a company and a particularly valued employee should especially be protected. That is the basis on which we regrow and rebuild the industry. This industry is crucial not just for cities, but for revitalising our towns in our rural economy post Covid-19.
I want to acknowledge what the Deputy has said. I outlined the provisions that were made at national level across the sector. Each one of them worked its way down to individual people who are involved in the industry. I mentioned the global name for each of the schemes, but every one of them had a positive impact on many people on the ground. It takes time for those schemes to work their way down through the system, but this has been done.
Everybody now recognises that many people are back at work. Some 90% of people who were on the PUP earlier in the year are now back at work. In the days, weeks and months ahead, the focus has to be on the specific sectors that are now affected more than others as a result of Covid-19. Everything we talk about now has to be geared towards specific sectors. Large sections of the economy are back to normal again. I met many business owners in the last couple of weeks who said that despite everything, they have had a reasonably good year. However, that certainly does not include this sector. That is why it has to be has supported specifically.
The Deputy mentioned issues such as the key employee support scheme. Such issues, along with training for the industry, need to be examined to make sure core people are in place such that when tourism fully reopens next year when Covid-19 is behind us, we are not short of staff and we are not looking outside the country for people to come in and give people their céad míle fáilte.
The tourism VAT rate does not hold for the full year. However, it is designed to get us over the tourism season, which was the main element. I am sure that topic will come up for discussion in the period ahead again. I thank the Deputy for raising that. The people had commenced the cancellations before the Government made the announcement. Many people would have been hesitant about going out, regardless of whether the Government closed down or introduced the midnight restriction. I will talk directly to the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, in the morning in light of our debate this evening.