I HESITATED today before dipping my toe into the waters of the Covid-19 debate.
The atmosphere surrounding the issues of restrictions and vaccines has become febrile of late - nothing to do with the post-Christmas slump and the widespread January malaise of course!
Seriously, though, for politicians, public health experts, journalists, and the man and woman in the street, it is nigh on impossible to put forward a point of view without attracting hostility, particularly in the rabbit-holes of social media.
However, having dithered then procrastinated over writing this column a week ago, I now feel it’s time to state baldly that the Government ought to immediately lift its 8pm bar on the hospitality sector, imposed on December 16 as the Omicron wave broke on Ireland’s shores.
I appreciate it is a sensitive topic for some, particularly those with loved ones who are sick, and those working in the health sector.
But I do not, for the life of me, see why we are continuing with this 8pm edict on pubs, cinemas, restaurants and theatres - and here I present ten very good reasons why the rule should be scrapped forthwith...
1. Ireland is an outlier in Europe
England’s pubs and restaurants have maintained business as usual throughout this latest wave, and although there have been some restrictions on hospitality in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, none have been as Draconian as the 8pm closures here.
Pubs and restaurants have also remained open in countries like France and Germany, with a few rules in place regarding vaccination compliance.
2. The 8pm restriction is having minimal - if any - effect
We have one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, and we have among the tightest restrictions on our lives of any country, yet Ireland has still recorded one of the highest positive case Covid rates in the world of late.
Countries which have no, or looser, restrictions, and have lower levels of vaccination, have far fewer cases. How so?
Clearly, this Omicron variant has been spreading like wildfire through Irish households, despite the restrictions in place. Why this is happening is a moot point, but fully reopening the hospitality industry will surely not make a jot of difference.
3. The 8pm restriction was even disputed by public health experts when it was introduced
A few members of Nphet voiced concern at the earlier closing times, at a meeting on December 16, it emerged this week, with some saying that such strict measures were “disproportionate by international comparison”.
I would humbly suggest that all the evidence in the past month points to this stance having been proven beyond reasonable doubt.
The 8pm measure is due to stay in place until at least January 30, but it was reported this week that some ministers are becoming increasingly sceptical about the limit on trading hours. Their voices need to be heard.
4. This strain of Covid is much milder
This was beyond dispute even before the new year, but for some reason, it has been constantly underplayed by some public health experts and politicians - and even some in the media.
“Too early to say,” has been their regular refrain, while the same people are usually only too happy to emphasise doomsday scenarios regarding high transmissibility.
The mildness of Omicron has been an undisputed good news story - aligned with our vaccines which, although they don’t appear to be great at preventing transmission, are certainly good at allaying severe symptoms and preventing deaths.
5. By all indicators, the peak of this wave has been reached
Yes, there will be knock-on effects for some time to come for our beleaguered hospital workers, but, again, it’s hard to see how fully reopening hospitality will impact on this going forward.
6. Pubs, restaurants, cinemas and theatres desperately need the trade
Yes, I know it’s unfashionable to stand up for the economy at present, but no industry should be restrained from trade without a damn good reason.
The milder, almost flu-like Omicron, low ICU and mortality rates, aligned with a highly vaccinated population, do not constitute a damn good reason.
7. January is quiet anyway
Although the decision to introduce an 8pm closure looks, in retrospect, like a mistake, perhaps the government can be excused for showing excessive caution in the run up to Christmas.
I would argue that restrictions should be a last resort, not a first resort, but Micheál Martin’s safety-first approach is ingrained now. I’m sure his much-criticised response when a new Covid variant wreaked havoc the previous Christmas also played on his mind.
However, January is generally a quiet month for hospitality, so we are unlikely to see big crowds and parties gathering in pubs and restaurants if the 8pm rule is lifted now.
8. It would give an extra boost to vaccination numbers
The more the unvaccinated see what they are missing out on, the more likely they are to want to have the jab.
If pubs, cinemas, theatres, and restaurants opened till late again, that might spur them on.
9. There would be fewer house parties
The 8pm cut-off point is only encouraging people to congregate in homes later, in conditions where social distancing and masks are not reinforced, and are less likely to be on the agenda.
I know if I was a young wan in 2022, my night out would be far from over at 8pm - put it that way!
10. It would send a vital, upbeat signal to the public: We are winning this fight
By fully reopening hospitality, the government would be sending an important message to society that vaccines are working, that we are starting to return to a semblance of normality despite these variants, and that we will not impose restrictions unless they are absolutely necessary.
One final point: If a new variant arrives next month and we need to exercise caution again, a full reopening of hospitality now will allow the Government some leeway on restrictions in the future, and they could revert to an 8pm shutdown if they felt it absolutely necessary.
If that 8pm cap is already in place, where else can they go but a total shutdown of hospitality?