Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has suggested that the Covid-19 pandemic could continue into next winter saying we need to “seize the summer” while preparing for a possible resurgence.
It comes as the Government announced new restrictions in response to the continued high level of cases of the virus and the threat of the new Omicron variant.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin listed the new restrictions on the hospitality and entertainment sectors in a televised address where he told the country he shares “the disappointment and frustration that this will cause”.
Mr Martin said it is “not about going back to the days of lockdowns” but about adjusting the guidelines to the current threat from the virus.
The Government has accepted recommendations made by the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) which will be in place from next Tuesday, December 7th until January 9th.
Under the new measures nightclubs will closed and there will be tighter measures adopted again in bars, restaurants and hotels.
Tables will be limited to six individuals and no multiple bookings will be allowed though closing time remains at midnight.
There is to be a maximum of 50 per cent capacity at indoor entertainment and sporting events.
Covid passes will be required for gyms, leisure centres, and hotel bars and restaurants.
Mr Martin confirmed the Government has adopted Nphet’s advice on household visits and limiting them to three other households, while acknowledging the need for flexibility.
Mr Varadkar said this will be advice and it won’t be enforced by gardaí. The Government is not telling people what they can and can’t do in their own homes, he said.
The current rules for weddings remain unchanged.
At a press conference on Friday evening it was put to Mr Martin that he had previously said that once a sector was opened it would not close again and the new measures amounted to an admission of failure.
He replied: “Not at all. I don’t think that’s a fair assessment… the threats with the virus change and I think the vast bulk of society is open and remains open.”
Strong seasonal component
Mr Varadkar conceded that the pandemic could still be around next winter.
He said some experts have suggested the pandemic could last five years adding: “I certainly hope that’s not the case.”
Mr Varadkar said it is clear there is a strong seasonal component and that means two things have to be done.
Firstly he said “we need to seize the summer”.
“The last two summers we had the toughest restrictions in Europe… I’m determined that will not be the case next summer. We should open safely if we can”.
Secondly, he said: “We also need to prepare for next winter while dealing with this winter because there will be new variants”.
That includes building up the capacity of our health service and in the test, trace and isolate system, which he said the Government has been doing.
Mr Varadkar did say that scientists believe they can tweak vaccines for new variants within three months and there will new anti-viral tablets available next year and “that will help too”.
Green Party leader Eamon Ryan said one thing that gives him confidence is the booster vaccine campaign and indications that the jabs will still provide protection from the Omicron variant.
The Government announced a series of expanded financial supports for the hospitality and entertainment sectors and workers who may lose their jobs.
The Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) will be temporarily reopened to new entrants in order to cater for people who lose their jobs as a result of the restrictions. Further details are to be announced in the coming days.
There is to be an extra €25 million to support the live entertainment sector.
Mr Varadkar said that the Covid Response Support Scheme (CRSS) will be reformed to help more businesses.
Up until now it was only paid to businesses that had to close or saw a 75 per cent reduction in turnover. It will now apply to businesses like restaurants, pubs, theatres and nightclubs who are impacted by the restrictions though there will be terms and conditions involved. Minister Paschal Donohoe is looking at raising the weekly €5,000 cap.
The Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme (EWSS) – the rates of which were cut this week – will stay at the new reduced rates.
Mr Varadkar said this is because the majority of businesses and jobs supported by the EWSS are not in sectors affected by the new restrictions.
He said the Government want to make sure EWSS is targeted at those that need it the most.
There will be a €62.3 million targeted commercial rates waiver for the first three months of 2022 for businesses in the hospitality and entertainment sector that are impacted by the restrictions.
Government rejects calls to introduce a right to work from home
The Government has rejected calls to introduce a right to work from home, promising instead to legislate for a right for employees to request home-working.
Opposition politicians have called for a right to work remotely.
However, Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise Leo Varadkar said that while the Government’s proposed Bill would require employers to consider such requests, they would still be able to reject them.
He argued that employers are more likely to grant requests to work from home for fear of being brought to the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) – which will be the appeals mechanism in the new law.
Cabinet is set to consider the proposals as hundreds of thousands of workers face a gradual return to the office over the coming weeks.
Unions have said that employers must consult with their members about the return to on-site working and ICTU chief Patricia King warned that some workers will not be able to return for health reasons.
Mr Varadkar said new safety protocols are to be published by the end of the week as he spoke about the Government’s plans to legislate for the right to request remote working.
The proposed Bill will set out a legal framework whereby an employer can either approve or reject a request to work remotely from an employee.
‘Change the culture’
Social Democrats co-leader Catherine Murphy has said the Government must give workers a legal right to work remotely, “not merely the right to request flexible working arrangements”.
She said the Government’s plan “does not go far enough” and “The default position should be that flexible working is permissible. It should not be at the whim of employers to accept it or reject it.”
Labour’s employment spokeswoman Senator Maire Sherlock has criticised the Government for not moving quicker to address the issue of people returning to the workplace and called for legislation that guarantees the right to flexible work.
Sinn Féin’s spokeswoman on Enterprise Louise O’Reilly said the planned legislation should be “more robust” and that no reasonable request from an employees should be refused.
She acknowledged that not all requests can be granted because not all work can be done remotely but said: “the emphasis should be on the right to have it rather than the right to ask for it”.
Mr Varadkar said there was a lot of work done with the Attorney General and “Government can only interfere in contracts that employers and employees have signed to a certain extent.”
He also pointed out that remote working isn’t always going to be possible – pointing to education, healthcare, manufacturing and hospitality as examples.
Mr Varadkar said: “What we want to do is get to a position whereby remote working/home working becomes a choice and that employers facilitate that provided the business gets done and provided public services don’t suffer.”
He said that the Government does not want things to go back to the old normal for working arrangements post-pandemic.
“We want to see more remote working, more home working, more hybrid working”.
Mr Varadkar said he believes the legislation can “change the culture” and that employers will embrace it.
Travel agents experiencing increase in bookings since Covid-19 restrictions eased
Travel agents are experiencing an increase in inquires and bookings since the government announced the relaxation of Covid-19 restrictions on Friday.
Pat Dawson, CEO of the Irish Travel Agents Association, says there has been a “phenomenal” turn around in bookings, and travel agents are busy getting back to inquiries.
“We are looking at a healthy summer season, it’s the first time I’ve been positive in two years.”
He advised people to book their holidays early to avoid disappointment. “The longer you leave it, the dearer it will get. Mid-term break in February and Easter are almost full.”
Mr Dawson believes there is a pent-up demand. “There are some people who have money they haven’t spent, a big chunk of that will be spent on foreign holidays.”
John Spollen, director of Cassidy Travel in Dublin, says he has seen an increase in bookings over the weekend.
Popular destinations include Spain and Portugal, which have been Irish favourites for many years now, says Mr Spollen. There are also some bookings for the US, Jersey, Madeira and the Greek islands.
People should avoid peak travel times from mid June to the end of August and consider booking mid-week, early or late flights to get the best value, according to Mr Spollen.
“In May, September and October, the weather will be similar to summer weather.”
Mr Spollen added people should take out travel insurance and ensure their passport and driver’s licence are in date.
Michael Doorley of Shandon Travel in Cork said they have seen a huge increase in inquiries.
“We are not back to 2019 levels yet… the EU is a big destination. We have had a lot of inquires about mobile home holiday parks. Italy would be the most popular destination for this type of holiday, but Croatia is becoming almost as popular.”
There are also bookings for America coming in, as well as some couples celebrating their honeymoons belatedly, according to Mr Doorley.
It is important that people understand the restrictions in the country they are travelling to, he added, and they should check the Department of Foreign Affairs website regularly.
Aoife O’Donoghue is just one of the many Irish people who have not been on a holiday abroad in two years, and she is excited to be going to Barcelona at the end of March.
“A friend is moving over there in February, so myself and two other girls are going to visit her. It’s actually all our birthdays that weekend too,” she says.
The friends used to live together in Galway, and Ms O’Donoghue says it’s fantastic to have something to look forward to again.
The last time she went abroad was to Switzerland in January 2020. “Just as we were coming back there was news of the big Covid outbreak in Italy, so felt lucky to have gotten a holiday in before it all kicked off.”
Property group clashes with council over Dundrum residential development
The owners of Dundrum Town Centre have clashed with Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown council over demands for more large apartments as they advance fast-track plans for a major residential development in the south Dublin village.
Property group Hammerson and insurer Allianz, which operate the new shopping complex in the area, have been in talks with An Bord Pleanála to build up to 889 apartments on the site of the old Dundrum shopping centre.
Their company, Dundrum Retail Ltd Partnership, has told the council it should scrap new requirements for “a minimum of three-plus bedroom units” in large apartment blocks that are included among proposed amendments to its draft county development plan.
In a submission last week to the council, the company said the new guidelines were in conflict with official rules that said there should be no minimum requirement for apartments with three or more bedrooms.
According to the company, the justification for the guidelines was based on fast-track strategic housing development permissions in the council area and “evidence” from certain boroughs in London.
“[Dundrum Retail Ltd Partnership] submit that the logic underpinning the policy is flawed and is not a basis for imposing prescriptive unit mix ratios on a countywide basis,” it said.
“The draft development plan needs to be amended to remove the very prescriptive requirement for apartments with three or more bedrooms and to allow applicants to make the case for a particular unit mix based on the particular attributes of local areas where a different mix might be appropriate.”
The company also told the council that proposed amendments to the development plan presented “contradictory or ambiguous objectives” in relation to proposals for a community, cultural and civic centre in the area.
Such objections were included among 106 submissions on the draft plan in a public consultation which closed last week. Numerous other developers and the Irish Home Builders Association lobby group also opposed the measures, some saying they would delay or prevent the delivery of new homes.
Asked about the submissions, the council said the response to any issues raised would be set out in a report by its chief executive to elected members which would be published. “It will be a decision of the elected members to adopt the plan and it is anticipated that this will take place in early March 2022. The plan will then come into effect six weeks later,” the council said.
In its submission, the Irish Home Builders Association said its members were concerned that the introduction of “further onerous standards” would increase the cost of delivering new homes and their price.
“This at a time when construction costs are already under huge inflationary pressure and affordability is a major issues for most home buyers,” said James Benson, director of the association.
“A key concern of the home-building sector in respect of the new plan is a lack of consistency with national planning guidelines/standards, which may be considered to be contrary to recent Government policy which sought to bring a greater extent of standardisation to national planning standards.”
The submission added: “The key concerns relate to the locational restriction and unit mix requirements for [build-to-rent] schemes, other standards for apartment developments which are more onerous/restrictive than the Government’s… guidelines, and the requirement for early delivery of childcare facilities in residential developments, all of which have the potential to impact adversely on the viability and affordability of housing in the county.”
Another builder, Park Developments, said in a submission the draft sought “more onerous policies, objectives and standards” that would have a direct effect on housing supply. “We are already seeing the impact of the chronic shortage in the supply of housing on the affordability of rental accommodation and homeownership.”
Castlethorn Construction said the blanket imposition of three-bedroom requirements “can only serve to militate against development of apartments” in the council area. It said the cost of delivering three-bed apartments was “very significant”, adding that demand was “not evident by reference to market sentiment, estate agents’ advice” and national policy imperatives.
Developer Hines, which has major interests in the Cherrywood strategic development zone, said in its submission that the logic underpinning requirements for more three-bedroom units was flawed.
“While making the case that recent development has been weighted towards one- and two-bed units, it fails to recognise that three-bed semi-detached and detached houses remain the predominant typology within [Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown] and that the [strategic housing development] permissions provide a much-needed mix of housing types within the county to redress this balance within the county.”
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