1st July 2021

Government must take charge to reassure a disillusioned hospitality industry

On Tuesday, announcing adjustments to the reopening plan, Taoiseach Micheál Martin spoke of Ireland’s tortuous Covid journey, declaring this latest decision yet another twist in the road.

For the hospitality industry, this has been a relentless fifteen months. The decision to further delay indoor dining, just six days out from the 5 July reopening date set in May, represented more than a twist—it was a severe collision on the journey back to normal.

Ireland’s hospitality industry has endured the longest lockdown in the EU. While our industry remains shut to indoor diners, now without a timeline for full reopening, indoor dining has reopened in most of mainland Europe.

To enter a bar or restaurant in Germany, punters show some form of proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test. In the UK, there is no need to prove anything; in most cases you simply leave your contact details on a piece of paper or sign in with the NHS app. This has been the case for months.

Planning for a plan being planned

The Taoiseach’s address raised more questions than it answered. In an interview on RTÉ News at One, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly went to great lengths to assure the public that the Government was now in listening mode.

He said the Government would listen to the hospitality industry on how best to roll out a vaccine pass system for indoor diners—and allow it the time to plan for a plan that is still being planned but is nevertheless due for delivery in less than three weeks.

The industry is justifiably furious. There are stark inconsistencies in the Government’s decision-making on hospitality, and these inconsistencies are only exacerbated by a lack of hard data on the specific risk presented by indoor dining and why keeping it fully shut remains the best course of action.

While Nphet has presented projections of the ongoing threat of Covid-19 and grim data on the Delta variant, these are based on a series of best- and worst-case scenarios that may or may not occur.

With inconsistent messaging, impractical solutions, and the uncertainty that comes with no definitive date for resuming indoor dining, the industry is at a standstill.

The Taoiseach postponed the reopening of indoor hospitality until further notice. Nphet later claimed that without a vaccine pass system in place, the industry could be shut until September or later.

Drawing out harm

We are doing a solid job on the vaccination rollout: 40% of the population is now fully vaccinated and 65% have their first dose. We should not lose sight of this or the enormous sacrifices made by the public in response to Covid-19.

However, if we are to remain on a positive trajectory, we urgently need to address challenges in our reopening strategy and communications. While these did improve for a period in early 2021, we are back to the point where Government is being blindsided by Nphet advice and recommendations.

This lack of coordination leads to inconsistent and mixed messaging, and when that happens, doubt and fear set in among the public and business.

The lack of joined-up thinking will continue to undermine confidence in our reopening and erode public confidence just when we need to reassure workers and consumers that it’s safe to leave their homes and begin resuming normal life. Without it, we merely draw out economic and psychological harm.

Government governs

The Government must lead again, taking decisions and actions that are practical and achievable, instead of acting like a passenger on a Nphet-conducted journey.

Understandably, given its public health remit, and in the face of increasing instances of Covid-19 variants, Nphet is risk averse and must advise and plan for the worst-case scenario.

We can’t simply ignore Nphet’s thinking and motivation, but as a nation we also cannot act exclusively through the narrow lens of short-term health figures—this inevitably leads to short-term policymaking.

While still perhaps reeling from the aftermath of the decisions taken at Christmas, our leaders must overcome this fear and increase their appetite for some risk and not think only in terms of the worst-case scenario. Government governs: it considers lives and livelihoods.

In Britain, indoor dining restarted on 17 May. Guests are not required to prove their vaccination status but do have to sign in. (Photo credit: Leon Neal.)

Shifting the mood

This starts firstly with prioritising a plan for the hospitality industry. We must be better prepared, sensibly weigh the risks, and collaborate with Nphet in designing the best way forward. This will serve to restore public faith and trust in government.

Secondly, we need to consider the point at which we stop ‘fighting’ the virus and instead become more comfortable living with it. We have known about Delta and indeed myriad other variants for some time, and we know they will continue to be a reality for years to come.

While the Government is right to be cautious, we must take stock, learn from or replicate the experience of other countries, and have confidence in our vaccination programme, which is working.

Thirdly, we must strongly consider the point at which the bodies that have served us well in this pandemic—Nphet and Niac—can assume reduced responsibility so we can really shift the narrative, mood, and mindset beyond Covid-19. Perhaps this is when we reach a certain level of immunity and a sustained drop in hospitalisations.

Building a recovery plan

We must also plan for the longer-term rehabilitation and recovery of those industries most impacted by the lockdown, such as hospitality, which, even when permitted to reopen, will continue to operate with restrictions for some time.

If we have learned anything from the pandemic, it is that we are adaptable. We’ve seen many positive and innovative responses to the pandemic. Many new businesses have emerged, and many established ones have adapted to some degree to the new reality, such as restaurants and pubs with outdoor dining.

There is ample capacity among many government departments not directly involved in the day-to-day management of Covid to establish a way forward and take a medium- and longer-term view of a practical and actionable recovery plan.

This will provide much needed hope to an economy and hospitality sector that has felt every single twist, turn, and bump on Ireland’s long Covid journey.

About the author

Sarah advises 360’s corporate clients and C-level executives on their business and financial communications, including corporate strategy, high-profile transactions, mergers, issues and crises, national policy, internal communications, and reputation management. With over 13 years’ experience in communications, having joined 360 at its inception, she has deep expertise in the technology, aviation, financial services and telecoms sectors, advising leading organisations such as Autodesk, Dell EMC, Qatar Airways, Irish Distillers, the Drinks Industry Group of Ireland, Stobart Group, and ComReg.

Feature image credit: Clare Keogh

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