- 19 Oct 20
It had been rumoured for days that a move to Level 5 restrictions was on the way. However, the extent of the restrictions being imposed by the Government go further than many had hoped – not least in the effective six-week duration that has been specified. Many in the wider hospitality sector see it as just one more crushing blow for business, for jobs, for the economy and for people's morale that may see them finally giving up the ghost...
In a decision that may have far-reaching effects on jobs, businesses and the economy, the Government has accepted the latest NPHET recommendations and moved the country to so called Level 5 restrictions. According to Government sources, the decision is likely to come into effect at midnight on Wednesday.
NPHET is chaired by the Chief Medical Officer, Tony Holohan, who recently returned to work and is widely seen as having driven the push for the imposition of Level 5 restrictions.
To soften the blow to individuals and to businesses, the decision was also made by Cabinet, in an emergency meeting today, to increase the Pandemic Unemployment Payment back to €350, for anyone who had been earning over €400 a week. Wage subsidy rates will also apparently be improved, in line with PUP payments. But that necessary concession is unlikely to appease those who are worst affected by the closure of their businesses – or the increasingly likely loss of many jobs.
Level 5 is the highest level of restrictions possible under the Government's 'medium-term' Covid plan, which was introduced in mid-September 2020. In this case, they have decided to allow schools to remain open – though that decision may yet cause controversy, as it is likely to be opposed by teachers unions.
For the most part, Level 5 involves restrictions being imposed at the same level as applied during the first national lockdown, which took place in March and April and proved seriously damaging to businesses – though the boom in the pharmaceutical sector has so far limited the damage to the economy. The Government has agreed that the new lockdown will last until the end of November, in line with the six weeks recommended NPHET – though it has been speculated that the Government might relax the restrictions sooner, if the trend in new infections is sufficiently positive.
Meanwhile, there is a widespread fear among business owners that these latest measures may be the hundred-thousand straws that, landed on people’s shoulders for a second time, and scheduled for a protracted period, will break the camel's back.
“It is desperately depressing,” one cafe owner told Hot Press. “It’s like you’re pushing a huge boulder up a steep hill. And you’re using every ounce of your energy and your strength, and you’re nearly getting there. And then they push you right back down to the bottom and you have to start all over again. I don’t think I have the will to go through it again. I'm thoroughly sick of it all."
“The people making these decisions have no idea what they are doing to businesses and to staff,” a bar owner said. “Leo Varadkar was absolutely right when he said that the people who are on NPHET will never have to live on a PUP payment – which is in effect what most of us and our key staff are being forced to do. They’re alright, Jack, and they will be in six months time as well. Their jobs are protected. So they can happily recommend putting us out of business. It is completely crazy that they have been allowed to dictate the terms, not least when the mortality rate as a result of the coronavirus remains low. That surely is the only thing that really matters."
Under the punishing Level 5 restrictions the following will apply:
• It is very bad news for business in general, with all of what are described as 'non-essential' retail businesses being required to close, including hairdressers. What are deemed essential retail outlets, for example supermarkets, petrol stations and pharmacies, will be allowed to remain open.
• Restaurants and pubs serving food will be reduced to takeaway or delivery services. There will be no outdoor dining permitted.
• So-called 'wet pubs' will be closed, though they will be allowed to operate a takeaway or delivery service.
• In one marked difference to earlier restrictions, under Level 5 of the Government's plan, schools and crèches were originally intended to stay open. Now, however, the feedback is that this will depend on the "situation and evidence at the time.”
• Under Level 5, people are required to stay within 5km from their home address, though there had been rumours that a 10km limit might be imposed instead.
• No visits between households, or gatherings outside the home, will be allowed.
• Visits to long-term residential care facilities will be suspended, with the exception of "critical and compassionate circumstances."
• The government are promising that people over 70, and people who are deemed to be medically vulnerable, will be issued with "specific guidance" under Level 5 – but the general advice, as before, is to minimise meeting with others, even outside the home.
• Wedding ceremonies will be allowed to proceed, but no more than six guests can attend, including at any planned reception.
• No organised indoor gatherings – for example conferences or arts events – will be allowed.
• No organised outdoor gatherings of any kind will be permitted.
• The GAA will be allowed to proceed with the All-Ireland Championships. Otherwise, only elite sporting fixtures will be permitted to take place. Gyms, swimming pools and other leisure facilities will all be ordered to close.
• No group training will be allowed, forcing people to exercise individually.
• Religious services will also be banned, though apparently places of worship will "remain open for private prayer.”
• A limit of 10 people will be allowed to attend funerals.
• All cultural venues, galleries and museums will be closed to the public.
• Hotels will not be required to close completely, but they will only be permitted to take bookings for guests who are on "essential business."
• All workers will be advised to work from home, unless they are working in health, social care or other essential services.
• Level 5 will also see public transport being shrunk to 25% of capacity, and people are being advised to avoid it altogether if possible, unless for "essential purposes” including getting to work.
"Thank Christ there is still football on television," one political insider commented wryly this afternoon. "Otherwise I think we might have people on the streets. Because it is so hard to defend, it is playing into the hands of the right wing crazies. That may yet come back to haunt us. So far, it has been relatively easily contained, but things could be about to get a lot uglier. Let's hope sanity prevails – but it might not."
There were 1,051 new cases of coronavirus today, about 200 lower than the highest daily total. There were no new deaths reported and the number in ICUs is at a relatively low 34, though there was an additional 20 hospitalisations today, bringing the total admitted to hospital to 298.
Recent figures in Northern Ireland have been 2.5 times those in the Republic per capita, and that pattern continued today with an additional 820 confirmed cases. There were six deaths reported that were Covid-related in the North.