Firms beg for social distancing guidelines to be eased

Additional reporting: Kevin O'Neill

The Government is under mounting pressure to relax social distancing guidelines as the retail and hospitality sectors warn of thousands of permanent job losses unless the two-metre rule is changed.

The warning comes as the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) predicts the decline in household spending could reduce indirect tax revenue by up to 20%.

The Department of Health confirmed four more deaths from Covid-19 on Sunday evening. There have been a total of 1,608 deaths associated with the pandemic in Ireland. A further 57 cases were also announced. There have now been 24,639 cases recorded.

One metre social distancing has been advised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and has been adopted in a number of European countries. However, the Government insists the public should stay two metres apart in order to stop the spread of Covid-19.

Retail and hospitality representative bodies have continued to call on the government to reduce social distancing to one metre in order to save their sector from recession amid deep concern about the liquidity of retailers post Covid-19.

Businesses argue the change would be the difference between a commercially non-viable outlet and a viable one.

The Restaurants Association of Ireland and Irish Hotels Federation are two of the bodies who have lobbied for the reduction, arguing the two metre rule is "not workable" for their sectors. They issued a request a number of weeks ago to the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) for a review of the guideline.

Adrian Cummins from the Restaurants Association of Ireland said "somewhere along the way" Ireland deferred from WHO, and the public should be told why.

"We went into this crisis under WHO guidelines and now we've changed to Irish guidelines," he said.

"When you look at other European countries, Finland or Norway for example, they have one metre social distancing guidelines.

"If we do not have this conversation, hundreds of businesses will not open because it's not viable to open. Thousands of jobs will be lost. People want to get back to work, and they need to know why Ireland is not looking at WHO guidelines.

"We agree that we're in a public health emergency but every business owner and society in general is asking these questions."

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has insisted the current two-metre social distancing rule will remain in place and there has been "no change" to the public health advice.

However, several cabinet ministers have argued in private for the adoption of WHO guidance, which states that a one-metre distance is considered to be safe.

Halving the current two metre social distancing rule to one, would "no doubt" provide "significant" extra capacity according to the HSE chief executive, Paul Reid.

"Obviously, the two metre rule did have significant implications for the health authority in terms of capacity in emergency departments and outpatient waiting rooms," Mr Reid said at the HSE's weekly media briefing.

"There is no doubt that one metre would certainly give us significant extra capacity in terms of managing our outpatient departments or managing our EDs or, generally, managing our services, but we will be guided by what is the current guidance from government through the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET)."

The concerns come as new research from the ESRI states the decline in household spending caused by the Covid-19 pandemic could reduce indirect tax revenue this year by more than one-fifth even in the "most optimistic scenario considered".

Conor O’Toole, co-author of the report and a Senior Research Officer at the ESRI, said: "A new normal with ongoing physical distancing would lead to a 13% fall in spending while a second wave may see spending cut by one-fifth."


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