Tuesday, 6 July 2021
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
Covid-19 Pandemic Supports
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, for coming before Seanad Éireann this morning. As we are all aware, the hospitality sector has been hammered since March 2020. Having worked in the sector for over 20 years, I retain many close friends and colleagues within the sector. Many have contacted me since the Government's decision not to allow reopening on 5 July and most said that this was the lowest point of the pandemic for them so far. I am not sure whether those who do not have the experience of the hospitality sector appreciate how important the summer season is for it. That period allows these businesses to survive the dark and wet nights of winter when very few people venture out. Many hospitality businesses take in as much turnover in a week in July as they would for most or all of November.
Yesterday, thankfully, we reached a level of over 50% of adults being fully vaccinated, including all those in the most at-risk categories. It is simply unacceptable that indoor hospitality remains closed under these conditions. I looked through the membership of NPHET yesterday and while these are obviously capable and qualified people, I did not see one name with economic expertise. I did not see one person who ever ran his or her own business and understood the stresses involved. The members of NPHET are entirely focused on managing this pandemic as best they can, which is their job, but at this point we need a much broader view. We need to recognise the impact recommendations are having on thousands of businesses. Many small family-run enterprises across this country have been denied the ability to earn a living for the past 15 months, as have some 150,000 staff in restaurants, bars and the hospitality sector in general. The situation cannot remain as is.Frankly, to extend it any longer into August, whereby Irish indoor hospitality businesses will be the only such businesses in Europe that are unable to operate, would be ridiculous. I noted the NPHET letter referred to high case numbers potentially having an impact on children returning to schools in person. I interpret that as a suggestion that indoor hospitality may be closed until September. It is crazy. It is not clear why we cannot use antigen testing across the sector. It could be used for a concert in Dublin last weekend, but we cannot use it for indoor hospitality despite six countries across Europe using it for that purpose. Ultimately, NPHET advises, but the Government must decide. The Government must take action and resolve this within the next two weeks.
I acknowledge that the Government has implemented unprecedented supports, which have been excellent, and I talk to business people every day across Galway city and county. The supports include the wage subsidy scheme and the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, which the Taoiseach announced last week will double this week and next week for businesses that are still closed. However, it is clear now that these businesses have missed their peak periods of the year and will require additional supports both in the short and longer term. The stimulus for the hospitality sector which the Government has promised to implement will need to have a significant focus on the businesses across this sector.
I thank Senator Crowe for tabling this Commencement matter. I am responding on behalf of the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Troy. However, I wish to make a few points before I give the Senator the Minister of State's response.
Last week was not just a low point for people in the business, it was a low point for the country. Everybody was looking forward to the reopening taking place on 5 July. I am also aware that one week in July is equivalent to November, as the Senator correctly stated. However, there are positives. One of them is the current position of 50% of adults being vaccinated. The Senator is right that the situation cannot remain as it is. I acknowledge the work the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and his team are doing and the Minister's agile approach. Last Friday, the twin-track approach was announced for the vaccination programme. Not only will there be an age approach, but there will also be a bottom-up approach that includes the youth. The youth have been held back for far too long, so this is absolutely welcome. It is a multifaceted approach within all Departments, including the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Department of Health.
The Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Varadkar, the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin, the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and the Minister of State at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Ossian Smyth, met with the hospitality sector last week to discuss the issue of indoor hospitality. Since then, officials from Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media and the Department of the Taoiseach have set up a working group and met with the sector again to discuss a way forward.
The Government is very conscious of the continuing toll of the pandemic and the restrictions across the sector and, most important, for the people working in the industry. The Senator comes from that sector and his family is based in it. Since the start of the pandemic the Government has responded rapidly, putting in place an extraordinary range of supports for workers and businesses. The new national economic recovery plan includes €4 billion of stimulus to fuel the economy so businesses can recover and rebuild. The CRSS will remain in place for businesses that have to stay closed. The pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, has been extended beyond the end of June 2021 and will continue to be paid at existing rates until 7 September, when the rates will commence a gradual reduction. The employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, is being extended until the end of 2021. The commercial rates waiver will also continue to September 2021. The 9% VAT rate will be extended until 1 September 2022. Tax warehousing is being extended until the end of the year and will be interest free in 2022.
In addition, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment's small business assistance scheme for Covid, SBASC, provided €908,000 to 227 businesses in the food and accommodation sector in phase 1 and 25 grant applications, for a total value of €93,000, have been received in phase 2. The closing date for phase 2 is 21 July. This is a scheme that many businesses do not realise is available. It is available through their county councils. It is a fantastic scheme if one is unable to avail of the CRSS. The Government wants to find practical, workable solutions to enable hospitality to reopen and stay open throughout future waves of this pandemic.
I hope I have addressed some of Senator Crowe's questions.
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, for her detailed and excellent response. I wish to make a few points, and the Minister of State will know where I am coming from with regard to the frustration. The notion of the hospitality sector having to police who is coming into a premises to ensure that only vaccinated people do so is just not going to work. I do not see it working, to be honest. I understand that representative bodies such as the Vintners' Federation of Ireland, VFI, the Licensed Vintners Association, LVA, and the Restaurants Association of Ireland, RAI, which the Minister of State will be very familiar with and with Mr. Adrian Cummins working day and night, are working with the Government on this. That is what has to be done to reopen indoor hospitality. Naturally, we all welcome that. I acknowledge that the Government has put unprecedented supports in place, but they must continue and more will probably be needed if the sector will not be able to reopen. Otherwise, jobs will be lost in the long run and the sector will not survive the crisis. I appreciate that the hospitality sector stimulus is likely to be some time down the line and probably for next year, but a portion of that must be earmarked in some way for bars and restaurants which only provide indoor hospitality and which have been shut for the past 15 months.
I again thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to respond. The Senator is right. The working groups of the VFI and the RAI, under Mr. Adrian Cummins, have been working tirelessly since the start of the pandemic. At all times they have approached it in a very measured format of what is right for their industry, the employers and the associated employees. There is a great deal of stress attached to this at present. There is no doubt about that. The Senator and I are from Galway and we know that the businesses are under incredible pressure. Basically, people want to get back to work. They want to get back in to meet their customers and so forth. However, the most important thing that arose from the Senator's Commencement matter this morning is that this new working group on finding a way forward for indoor dining and which includes the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, the Department of the Taoiseach and the industry is very welcome at this time. There is a real commitment in the Government to finding a workable, sustainable solution so there will not be stops and starts and we can take it into the future.
Finally, it is important to point out that there will be no cliff edge financially for the supports for these businesses. That is the one thing the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, asked me to articulate this morning. There will be no cliff edge for businesses.