Businesses are seeking a change in the rules dealing with people who are close contacts of Covid-19 cases as an expected surge in case numbers in coming weeks threatens to keep increasing numbers of staff out of work.
Retail, hospitality, supply chain, transport and other businesses have all already felt staff shortages amid rising Covid cases and close contact numbers, with many workers having to restrict their movements even where they have no symptoms and negative antigen test results.
Ibec, the employers’ representative group, said the full effects in this regard will not be obvious until later next week when the post-Christmas economy returns in full.
However, its members are already finding that they have three times the numbers of people who are having to stay out of work because they are close contacts than those who actually have Covid-19 symptoms.
Ibec chief executive Danny McCoy said businesses could be further hit in coming weeks: “You could be a close contact for 40 or 50 days if you’re unlucky and had a run of it,” he said.
As things stand, close contacts who have not received Covid-19 booster vaccines must stay at home for 10 days, while those with boosters must do so for five.
“At one level, for the business it doesn’t really matter whether you’re positive or a close contact; you’re not there,” said Mr McCoy, addressing the sheer scale of staff absences. “Close contacts in volume terms seems to be driving the large numbers.”
Ibec believes restricted movement rules for close contacts need to be revised in cases where people are boosted, have no symptoms and return negative antigen tests – a move Mr McCoy believes could as much as halve current rates of absences.
Risk for retail
Retail is considered at particular risk given the relatively young age of many employees. Jean McCabe, vice-chair of Retail Excellence, said that in Dublin some businesses were deciding which branches to leave open and which to close amid staffing issues; others survived on skeleton staff.
“I think the issue of close contacts and isolation does have to be reviewed downwards,” she said, having personally experienced a “domino effect” in this regard in the run-up to the Christmas sales at her Ennis-based fashion business.
A revision of the rules would also help hospitality: the Restaurants Association of Ireland (RAI) said 30 per cent of its members had to cease trading due to staff shortages over Christmas.
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“If one person gets it [Covid] in the kitchen, the whole kitchen is out,” noted RAI chief executive Adrian Cummins, who has also called for a suspension of self-restriction requirements in cases of non-symptomatic, boosted close contacts who undertake a series of antigen tests.
It is not just a commercial sector headache – staffing issues are proving similarly problematic across essential services. A spokesman for An Garda Síochána said: “In line with the trend among the general population the current impact of Covid-19 is more significant at this time,” although the organisation has declined to comment on specific numbers.
Speaking on Newstalk radio on Tuesday, chief executive of the Health Service Executive (HSE) Paul Reid said some hospitals were experiencing daily shortages of up to 300 staff and that priority had to be given to urgent care. A HSE spokeswoman said many hospitals are already doing so and have “curtailed elective and outpatient care”.
The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) had already called for non-emergency services to be scaled back, citing an “exhausted nursing workforce with high levels of burnout” and the cancellation of leave to fill rosters.
Transport too has been hit in some areas as fewer people arrive to work. The National Transport Authority (NTA) said that while there “is no immediate cause for concern on most services”, operators are experiencing an increased absence rate of between 5 and 10 per cent from both Covid and other illness.
Some services have been cancelled as a direct consequence of Covid. Irish Rail said a small number of routes would be curtailed over the duration of the week, with the normal daily rate of about 670 running trains being cut to 650.
Bus operators have advised users to monitor service updates. Dublin Bus said that while it was operating its full timetable, some disruption has resulted from “higher than usual levels of employee absence due to Covid-19”.
Bus Éireann said it was “experiencing minor disruption as a result of Covid-related absences” and is prioritising services across its 17 depots to reduce it.
On Tuesday, An Post had to close 10 post offices, a little more than 1 per cent of its 920 branches, due to Covid.
“It will be different tomorrow because some will reopen and some others might close,” a spokeswoman for An Post said, adding that the service was coping despite the difficulties.
“We are a good barometer of the country and we are certainly seeing people out as a result of [being] close contacts absolutely everywhere.”
Case study: How one business shut temporarily after staff became close contacts
When two staff members told their boss they were close contacts for Covid-19, it sparked a series of decisions and actions that would see a business close for 10 days over Christmas and cancel hundreds of bookings.
“It was just a case of keep everybody safe, get them out and close it down,” said Simon O’Connell, owner of the eponymous O’Connell’s pub in Howth that should have been entering a period of relatively bustling seasonal trade.
While he acted quickly and decisively – a combination of staff safety and damage limitation in mind – his experience exemplifies the confusion and chaos that can envelop businesses in the maelstrom of the pandemic.
“The week leading up to the 25th was really quiet this year because everybody was just terrified of catching Covid and not being able to meet their folks or their family. So we lost out on that week; everybody lost out on that week.”
Then, just as things might have picked up, O’Connell was told by two staff members on December 27th that they had been identified as close contacts. Weighing up the potential implications of positive tests, the safest option appeared to be the most severe.
On a quiet lunchtime as a handful of customers finished their meals, staff began the arduous task of cancelling the next 10 days’ worth of bookings by phone and email – up to 1,300 covers (not to mention walk-ins).
“The two girls were gone home and technically we could have kept trading because nobody else was at that time a close contact,” O’Connell said. “[But] it would come back on you. If you keep trading and everybody turns out to be positive you are just going to look terrible. And it’s not the right thing to do; you need to keep everybody safe.”
PCR tests confirmed all of the other staff members to be free of Covid. However, such are the levels of staffing that even missing two can render the running of a busy restaurant unviable.
“When there are restrictions in place [and] you take out one or two staff it really knocks you down because there is so many more procedures now than there would have been two years ago.”
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College Park to remain in full use for Trinity sports clubs
The board of Trinity College has agreed to pursue an alternative site for the building of a temporary exhibition pavilion during the renovation period of its Old Library, saving College Park from what several affected sports clubs said would have proven “hugely detrimental” to their training and competition needs.
Concerns had been raised over the timing and level of consultation with regard to College Park being named the preferred site last November, three of Trinity’s largest and oldest sporting clubs – athletics, football and cricket – already raising considerable objections over the proposal.
A Trinity communications press statement on Wednesday afternoon said that, subject to statutory constraints, “the Board of Trinity has today (Wednesday) approved a proposal to renovate the Printing House building, which would house the Book of Kells during the period of renovation, and also create a temporary exhibition in New Square, at the centre of campus”.
The alternative proposal of the Printing House, coupled with New Square, “follows consultation within the Trinity community”; Trinity students have four representatives on the 27-strong board, three from the Students’ Union (SU), and one from the Graduate Students’ Union (GSU), their president Gisèle Scanlon, and all four had already expressed their dissent at the College Park proposal.
“A process of careful consultation across College has led to today’s agreement on how to proceed with this plan,” said Trinity provost Linda Doyle. “I want to thank those involved for their engagement. We believe this choice of location offers the best possible solution for our staff, students and future visitors to College.”
Trinity’s bursar Eleanor Denny added: “We are extremely grateful to everyone in Trinity who helped us arrive at this crucial decision. This innovative plan allows us to preserve public access to the Book of Kells, one of Ireland’s foremost cultural attractions as well as restoring one of the oldest landmark buildings on campus, the Printing House.”
A Trinity email first sent to affected clubs in October said: “Based on early discussions Trinity has had with Dublin City Council, the location with the best opportunity to secure planning permission is College Park.”
A feasibility study outlining the scale of the project allowed for the continuation of some sport at College Park; however, according to the three clubs, this would have effectively rendered College Park useless as a competition and match facility, while also depriving the wider college community the sort of green space it increasingly craves.
The Old Library renovation is expected to take between three to five years, costing around €120 million, which meant it could have been 2028 before the space was restored. The temporary exhibition project is still subject to planning permission.
“We were very worried about this, for a very long time, and spent a lot of time lobbying against this,” said Scanlon, the GSU president also starting a petition to Save College Park. “All other options weren’t properly considered, and I think there should be lessons learnt on this. And whatever happens with the planning from this point, College Park should not be on the agenda, and should never have been on the agenda.”
Ray O’Malley, president of Dublin University Association Football Club (DUAFC), founded in 1883, also welcomed the outcome of Wednesday’s board meeting: “I think they [the board] misjudged the feelings towards College Park, from the general student base, and the clubs that use it,” he said. “Thankfully they appear to have belatedly realised that, and somewhere down the line the correct decision has been made, perhaps not following in the correct procedure.
“It’s our unique selling point, and the reason why we were fighting so hard for this. Even if it was only on a temporary basis, it’s too important for us. We all recognise the importance and value of the Book of Kells, but sport is a very importance part of college life too, and we’re extremely grateful for the role that people like Gisèle played in this, some of the club members, and that the powers that be accepted somewhere down the line that College Park simply wasn’t the right place for this proposal.”
Pandemic need for flexibility not reflected in draft laws
Draft laws on remote working mark an attempt by Tánaiste Leo Varadkar to formalise radical work practice changes that were suddenly introduced when Covid-19 struck two years ago.
Back then, the force of the pandemic was such that procedural and legal niceties were swept aside in the rush to protect public health and keep the economy turning. Many tricky questions were avoided at that time but they can be avoided no longer now that most restrictions have been lifted.
“We’ve worked through for two years basically turning a blind eye to the whole thing but that will stop,” said Richard Grogan, an employment law solicitor in Dublin.
“We’ve been working through an emergency which is slightly different. The emergency is now finishing.”
The new regime is supposed to open more choice for workers if they wish to work from home, giving them a right to seek such arrangements after six months. But in-built flexibilities for employers open scope for them to refuse permission to work remotely on 13 grounds.
Conflict appears inevitable. With key details still to be worked out, legal experts, employers and unions foresee many potential pitfalls and practical challenges when it comes to implementing the new arrangements in real time.
Many say the pandemic changed the world of work forever. A recent Central Statistics Office survey suggests that 80 per cent of workers worked remotely at some point since coronavirus struck, compared with 23 per cent before it. Two years later, with all signs suggesting the most acute phase of the health crisis has passed, these practices have bedded down to an extent that few might have expected at the outset.
Traffic and transport
Of those in employment who can work remotely, CSO data suggests 88 per cent want to continue after restrictions were removed: 28 per cent of them all the time; and 60 per cent some of the time. The proportion expressing that preference was highest at 93 per cent among respondents in counties Kildare, Louth, Meath and Wicklow in the Dublin commuter belt, where workers often encounter long traffic delays and overcrowded public transport.
If all of that points to high demand to avail of new laws, considerable hurdles remain to be overcome. To name but a few, these centre on domestic health and safety legislation, insurance issues, European data-protection law and on the Workplace Relations Commission’s new role in determining appeals to decisions against remote working.
“A lot of the issues that are going to go to the WRC where there isn’t agreement will relate to things like health and safety of a premises or [General Data Protection Regulation] compliance or whether somebody can actually do their work remotely. The [WRC] adjudication officers aren’t trained in any of those areas,” said Grogan.
“They are not there to look at a work station and say: ‘Does it comply with health and safety? Is it possible to put a work station into this bedroom safely?’ So that’s a huge issue.”
Asked whether the WRC had enough resources, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment said it would “work closely” with the institution to ensure it did. “Adjudication officers will receive appropriate information on the content of the legislation and the WRC was consulted on the heads of the Bill,” the department said.
Grogan suggested the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act might have to be “dumbed down” for remote work. “The only change you could bring in is if you’re working from home and you have an accident it’s your problem.”
He added that changes might also be required to the Civil Liability Act, which governs personal injuries. “There’s going to be a bit of nervousness overall about this,” he said, referring to employers.
But while the Government always has the option of amending Irish law, it can’t do anything on its own with European GDPR rules that impose stringent restrictions on how business uses sensitive personal data.
Neil McDonnell, chief executive of the Irish Small and Medium Enterprises business representative group, pointed to potential difficulties with remote-working where staff deal with such data. These include companies in the area of external payroll support – dealing with gross and net pay and issues like payments under maintenance agreements – and human resources support.
“There’s a few business that have been able to function remotely but reluctantly and with a lot of concern around what they’re doing,” McDonnell said.
“They basically have the innards of the company sitting on laptops. You could have someone doing HR support on their laptop in the kitchen – a bullying complaint, a harassment complaint or something of a sexual nature – and you have people who are third parties with no involvement in the companies walking past looking at that stuff.”
Employers were also concerned about the potential for claims for personal injury while working at home, McDonnell added. “We’re waiting to see something coming to court, or the Personal Injuries Assessment Board or the Health and Safety Authority.”
The plan has also come in for criticism from Fórsa, the largest public sector union, which said the “business grounds” for refusing remote working were too broad.
The union said the inclusion of grounds such as “potential negative impact on quality”, “potential negative impact on performance” and “planned structural change” would create loopholes that could allow employers turn down requests for no objective or proven reason.
“Employers must not have the option of simply turning down requests on spurious or vague grounds. Instead, they must be required to demonstrate, in a concrete way, that remote or blended arrangements are unworkable before they can turn down a request,” said Kevin Callinan, Fórsa general secretary.
Further questions are certain to arise as the law works its way through the Dáil and Seanad. The pandemic was all about ad hoc moves. Permanent arrangements are another matter entirely.
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