As cabinet sat down this morning to discuss a response to the rise in COVID-19 cases several items were on the agenda like a further expansion of the use of the vaccination pass or a revision of its advice for the phased return to work. Then out of the blue, we hear that the Government’s go-to target is back in the firing line; the hospitality sector.

Let’s call this move what it is; a spineless and lazy attempt to make it look like action is being taken. Today, the Government has allowed just enough scope for people to socialise for them to ultimately blame the public when it inevitably does not turn out to be the smoking gun that can change the course of the virus this winter.

Time and time again, the default response is to impose restrictions rather than more ambitious and impactful measures. Of course, the health service is under extraordinary pressure and we should take action now to mitigate a disaster. What is most painful about today’s blow to a vital sector of our economy is that it could have been avoided and is entirely the Government’s own doing.

Throughout the summer of this year, many of us who went abroad to Europe were shocked at the level of restrictions compared to back home. Ireland was very much an outlier and last in Europe to return to indoor dining. The October 22nd easing of restrictions, just 27 days ago, finally brought up to a place where so many European countries were over the summer.

In order to avoid a winter surge, further loosening of restrictions in the summer when the virus spreads more slowly would have been the obvious solution. Instead, the Government and public health officials decided to wait until the end of October, when a winter surge was already beginning, to allow the reopening of parts of the economy that had been shut for 585  consecutive days.

The excuse for delaying the reopening at the time was that our vaccination rates were not quite at the level needed to safely reopen. The figure of 90% of the population fully vaccinated was what we were told as we shivered outside of the pubs and restaurants fortunate enough to have an outdoor space. Where has the messaging gone on that 90% figure? It is just another erosion of trust of our public health officials in the eyes of the very people it needs to take up its advice.

Another example of this is on antigen testing. Rather than exploring its potential, NPHET managed to state clearly that it did not trust the public to properly use antigen testing. Now it seems to be slowly coming around to the idea despite already stating clearly that it is not a tool the public can use. 

To add insult to injury, at the end of October Taoiseach, Micheál Martin says that antigen testing will be a “further weapon” in the Government’s armoury to deal with the current wave of Covid. Where was this weapon months ago? Like other countries such as Denmark showed, an ambitious and widespread programme of antigen testing could be deployed to reopen hospitality safely far earlier than in Ireland. Unfortunately, despite pleas from the hospitality sector months ago, this ‘weapon’ has been deployed too late.

In a statement following today’s announcement, the Licenced Vintners Association (LVA) said the decision ‘will place considerable pressures on livelihoods in the run-up to Christmas.’ Today the government has threatened livelihoods for something that was completely avoidable and has little evidence of making any tangible difference. 

Many costly mistakes have been made along the way to get to where we are today. Public health messaging has been inconsistent at best and when faced with difficult decisions the Government has always reverted to its default, reckless option which continues to see diminishing returns. 

Once again, our pubs and clubs pay the price and as they close their doors early on Thursday night, chucking out disgruntled customers, they will truly be heralding the winter of discontent.

Conor Paterson – Co-Editor