Friday, 30 April 2021
Business and Covid-19: Statements
It is great to have this debate this morning, when so much hope and positivity abounds and people are generally in better form because certainty has been brought to their lives.I am not sure whether the positive feelings go as far as to help me deal with the picture on the front of theIrish Daily Mirrorthis morning that greeted me in Centra on Westland Row when I went in to get my newspaper, which showed the Tánaiste and Micheál Martin smiling at me with the headline "Copper Face Vaccs", and the Tánaiste talked about the outdoor area of Copper Face Jacks. Hope springs eternal, and if we do get back there this summer, I hope the Tánaiste will bring Micheál, Eamon and Mary Lou, and, most important, that the Tánaiste will be generous at the bar and maybe it will be Jägerbombs all around when he opens his wallet. We look forward to that.
I thank the Tánaiste for being here this morning, for his remarks and for the work that he has been doing, along with his Department and the Government, in supporting businesses throughout this horrific time. The challenge thrown down to the Government, the country and our society was unprecedented. Of course the whole world was dealing with the same disease at the same time. There were plenty of people in this country looking at other countries and saying they were doing this better and that better. Critically, as the Tánaiste said in his opening remarks, the overarching job was to keep people safe and ensure the health system was capable of coping. It was interesting to watch a debate on Sky News last night on the reopening of society in the UK and weighing it against the exceptionally high rate of mortality experienced. The debate there is moving on and people are judging how badly they dealt with the number of deaths they experienced. There may have been more caution shown in this country, but I equally believe the health of our people trumped everything else and, thankfully, our mortality rates are at the lower end of the chart for Europe.
For me, one of the most significant aspects of this recovery has been the cross-departmental co-operation that has taken place in supporting businesses. It is something that in the past, perhaps, government, national and local, might not be famed for. In this time of crisis, we have seen Departments not working in silos but across the board so that they could help businesses, in particular in the tourism and hospitality sector. The supports that were put in place in terms of wages supports, rates waivers and so forth were very welcome.
It was not just a case of allocating money - there has been an unprecedented amount of money allocated - but also in tackling regulatory aspects as well. The announcements this week by the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, on planning rules for cafés, restaurants and bars are very welcome, as are the exemption for restaurants to operate as takeaways until the end of this year because they cannot trade indoors, the zero fee for street furniture licences for tables outside for 2021 where a typical fee would be €125 per table, and the amendment that allows for awnings and coverings to be removed from the planning system so that these necessary additions can be made to buildings, with the fees also removed for these. The outdoor grant provided by the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, is really welcome, and there are businesses now furiously engaged with the process of getting their premises ready for outdoor dining and drinking this summer. Crucially, local councils are working with them to get larger public areas developed from the funds that are available to them.
While outdoor hospitality might be something that has been foisted upon us, it could be a real positive for how we use our town spaces. I pay tribute to a couple of business owners in my own town of Navan, Damien Clarke of Clarke's pub and David Snow of the Little Sicily restaurant, who have been going around the town over the past two weeks trying to get businesses on board with the idea of outdoor parklets on streets where people could dine and drink safely and which would be a great feature in the town. I pay tribute to both men because it is those ideas that will make the town an attractive place to visit and a counterbalance to the change in societal behaviour of online shopping as well.
One industry I want to touch on in respect of business supports is the media. Yesterday, we had a second tranche of funding for local radio stations amounting to €2.6 million, which I very much welcome. The local newspaper sector of this country, however, has been looking on enviously as no such fund is in place for it. Only yesterday, the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, again pivoted away from the issue in the Dáil. The Tánaiste himself has spoken on this issue, saying the industry needed to change its business model. Local newspapers do not have the same operating business models and resources as national newspapers. Local Ireland, which represents 42 paid-for local newspapers, has pointed out that we are going to have blank pages in local newspapers if this continues. These newspapers cover not just events, the courts, the councils and sports but are an historical record of local communities. When one examines the premise under which local radio stations were given their money yesterday, which was in providing Covid-related programming, nobody has done more than the local newspapers of this country in covering the resilience of our local communities during the Covid pandemic. We need to address this and work past this clear bias against local newspapers and embrace them because there will be no point crying when these fine institutions, that have served our country for more than two centuries, are lost because of this.