Holidaymakers from Northern Ireland hoping to stay in the Republic are facing uncertainty after the Irish Government decided to delay the reopening of indoor hospitality and restrict indoor dining to the fully vaccinated.
There was widespread anger in the Republic’s hospitality sector on Tuesday when the Irish Government confirmed that drinking and eating inside bars will be delayed for several weeks, instead of opening on the expected date of July 5.
Concerns were also raised when the Irish Government accepted a controversial recommendation to restrict indoor dining to the fully vaccinated or those with immunity to the virus.
Micheal Martin said “whether we like it or not”, the Delta coronavirus variant is far more transmissible and creates risks.
He told the Dail that modelling produced by the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) is “stark” in relation to case numbers, hospitalisations, intensive care occupancy and deaths for July, August and September.
While the delays to lifting restrictions has caused anger in the Republic, it has consequences for people in Northern Ireland.
Thomas Muldoon from Travel Ireland Coaches in Belfast said it made arranging certain trips across the border more complicated.
“It’s just that extra uncertainty about everything. You think you can go ahead and book things...but we had a lot of golf tours that were cancelled on us,” he said.
“Thankfully for now we’re still able to bring people down for things like dropping them off in Dublin City Centre at the weekend and pick them back up.”
On Tuesday, the chair of the British Medical Association in Northern Ireland, Dr Tom Black, said it was “only natural” that more people will now cross the border from the south to avail of hospitality.
On this side of the border, businesses said they were only too aware of the renewed pressure facing Irish hospitality.
Kevin Clarke, owner of Oysters Restaurant in Strabane, said customers travelling over the border had boosted his trade by as much as a third in recent weeks.
He was critical of the Irish Government’s plans to restrict indoor dining to those who were fully vaccinated. “I don’t think it’s going to work. I think they would have been better shutting down the whole country 14 months ago instead of penalising people for not being vaccinated,” he said.
“What do you do, leave the rest of your family at home?
“I just think that hospitality in Ireland should be getting more government support.”
In Londonderry, Ian Orr is the co-owner of the Browns in Town restaurant on the Strand Road.
“It’s a hard one to call. We are busy after being open, but I can’t really pinpoint if customers are coming from the Republic of Ireland,” he said.
“But there is an argument that we probably are getting a bit of business from there.
“It must be frustrating for restaurants in the south. I know last year there was maybe a week when the Republic of Ireland was open and we weren’t and that was frustrating.
“So it’s not easy for restaurants to be told that when their customers can drive 10 minutes up the road to Derry or Newry and spend their money there.”
On the Irish Government’s plans to restrict indoor dining to fully vaccinated customers, he said: “It’s probably going to be the future isn’t it? I don’t know how they’re going to do it, I’ve only had one of my doses so far so technically I’m not fully vaccinated.
“But I think it will be the new norm in a year’s time, if we want to book a flight to wherever they’ll be asking you for your passport and vaccination number.”
Ian said he was thankful that all his staff had returned to work after hospitality reopened in Northern Ireland.
“It’s OK at the moment, it hasn’t been easy but we’re just recruiting for new staff all the time.”
Looking towards Newry, Aidan Forde is the owner of the Art Bar Funkel restaurant.
“We’re nearly booked out for this Saturday night and at the moment there’s only one table from the south,” he said.
“So I suppose it’s no different from before. It’s devastating for (restaurant owners in Ireland) from a planning, staffing and stock point of view.
“I know how difficult it is to open back up after being closed for so long. The greatest issue we have at the moment is staff and lack of chefs.
“I reckon in the south you’ll now have more and more people leaving the industry. It’s such an uncertain time, God forbid we could all be closed again in September.”
He continued: “People want to have confidence in their earnings and that’s very difficult in hospitality.”
On the challenge of hiring new chefs, he said: “I’ve never seen it as bad. There was an issue before the pandemic, but now a lot of chefs have moved into different areas like delis in supermarkets and have refused to come back into the industry because of the hours.
“It’s very hard to compete against somebody that’s working Monday to Friday from 7-4 and ask them to work every night at the weekends.
“I now have to close maybe two nights a week simply because I don’t have the staff.”
Asked about the Irish Government’s plans to restrict indoor dining for vaccinated customers, he said: “Good luck with that nightmare. It is not up to the restaurants to police it, it’s just crazy.
“We have enough to do. Imagine someone at a table has forgotten their vaccination card, how will you even fill the restaurant with vaccinated people?
“It’s just a quagmire. It’s difficult enough to do track and trace which we do.
“As you know yourself, people in this industry are quite unforgiving. They want their food, they want their beer and they want it quick.
“I just think hospitality has been made the scapegoat. But people can still swanny around in house parties, buy as much beer as they want and have as many house parties as they wanted.
“At least here we have controls, people are asked to sit in their seats, they have to wear face masks.”
What remains unclear is how the latest hospitality delays will affect travel from Northern Ireland into the Irish Republic.
Anyone travelling to Northern Ireland from within the Common Travel Area has been asked to take a pre-departure LFD test and should not travel if they have Covid symptoms.
Travellers are also asked to take LFD tests on days two and eight of their arrival in Northern Ireland which are provided free of charge.
Asked about concerns of increased spread of coronavirus, a Department of Health spokesperson said on Wednesday: “The modelling information shows we are facing the potential of a significant Covid-19 surge by the end of the summer, if not sooner.
“Our vaccine programme has undoubtedly been a success and is key in the fight against Covid-19 however there is still work to do.
“So while we continue to push forward with the vaccine programme we ask that the public continue to follow the public health and travel guidance. Our behaviours now can impact the extent of the surge and limit the damage.”