I call upon the new Government to temporarily close all pubs, to give us time to prevent the second wave of COVID-19 spiralling out of control when it inevitably hits us. And it will hit us. I also ask the Irish people to make their priorities known to the Government, through their local TDs.
Images of crowds closely mixing and drinking outside centre city pubs in Dublin at the weekend is a slap in the face to the health workers who sacrificed so much to bring the coronavirus under control.
The insides of pubs, when distancing breaks down and noise levels rise, fuelled by alcohol, are riskier still. Such images strike fear into the vulnerable that are most at risk from a second wave.
There should be little surprise at seeing these scenes, given what we know of some of Ireland’s drinking culture and the precipitous early opening of pubs that self-designated as restaurants on 29 June. Only days before, Fáilte Ireland had issued guidelines on re-opening pubs.
While there was much that was good in the guidelines, they gave little steer to pub owners on how to ensure good customer behaviour. For example, how does one manage difficult customers who arrive drunk, well along the road on their pre-booked pub crawl, who argue their positions loudly, a few inches from a staff member’s face? Little attention has been given to monitoring, compliance and enforcement.
On 26 June, a group of professors of public health called for a postponement of the 29 June early opening of pubs, commenting that the government had handed control of the most critical relaxation measure to Ireland’s national tourist authority.
Short-term, short-sighted commercial interests could undermine both the health of the population and the long term survival of this sector.
Up to now, the Department of Health and NPHET have given strong leadership and sound public health advice and the Taoiseach, Mícheál Martin, and the Garda Commissioner, Drew Harris, have come out strongly against the behaviour at the weekend. Decisive action is now needed if the progress made in controlling the first wave is not to be swept away.
Poorly controlled pubs and house parties are both ideal venues for super-spreading of the virus, which could threaten jobs and undermine parents’ hopes of schools re-opening in September. The government needs to act now, to avoid the kinds of lockdowns that we are seeing in Spain, Australia and England.
A suggested plan
I would strongly urge the Government to announce the closure of all pubs by tomorrow, 10 July and postpone reopening them until at least Tuesday, 4 August, contingent on adequate measures, monitoring and enforcement being put in place.
Alternatively, there is a case for closing only Dublin pubs, for the time being, so as not to punish rural operators who contribute in a unique way to communities who lack urban social amenities.
Additional measures, beyond the distancing and face and hand hygiene measures in the Failte Ireland Guidelines, should focus on training and supports for pub staff to ensure customer compliance:
- All would-be-customers must be screened at pub entry for symptoms of COVID-19, a temperature check and any signs of having consumed alcohol. Pub managers must have full discretion to refuse entry.
- Staff must take the names, time of entry and validated mobile phone numbers of all customers, as a condition for entry. And they should encourage customers to download the new COVID-tracker phone app.
- Sound level monitoring and controls need to be in place, as the volume of human speech, shouting and singing, more so in poorly ventilated indoor settings, is directly linked with droplet and therefore virus spread.
Health and Safety Authority inspectors could have a role in making covert customer visits to pubs to assess compliance. Enforcement powers need to include on-the-spot closures by any Garda who deems a pub to be failing to comply with essential measures. These include allowing customers to take their drinks onto the streets and failing to take reasonable steps to prevent people from congregating unsafely outside their premises.
I believe that the majority of pub owners are responsible and wish to see legislative requirements in place to enable them to make their premises safe places to work, offer hospitality and do business. They need to know that the Gardaí will be on-hand with the powers to support and enforce all necessary measures.
Undoubtedly, enforcement of such measures will add to the burden on the State and on pub owners at a difficult time. However, I would argue that we are at a critical point in our battle against COVID-19.
We have flattened the curve but the warning signs are clear to see – a shift towards more cases in young people and a return to cases coming from abroad.
If we drop the ball now, leading to lockdowns of sections of the economy and parts of the country, the impact on Ireland’s health, social cohesion and economy would be intolerable. Now is our chance to stop this.
This article was originally published on thejournal.ie on 9 July 2020.
Prof. Ruairí Brugha is Emeritus Professor of Public Health and Epidemiology at RCSI.