Talks between the hospitality industry and Government representatives to find a way of allowing indoor hospitality to resume will get under way later.
Indoor drinking and dining in pubs and restaurants had been due to recommence today, as part of the next phase of easing restrictions.
The Government decided last week to delay resuming indoor hospitality, on foot of advice from the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) over concerns about the spread of the Delta variant.
Ahead of this afternoon’s talks, industry representatives have said they are extremely disappointed that members of NPHET will not be attending, however, they may be part of the process at a later date.
This has angered representatives of the hospitality sector – who say there is no point in any plan being agreed if it is then rejected by public health advisers.
The Vintners’ Federation of Ireland described it as a hugely disappointing development, while Adrian Cummins of the Restaurants Association of Ireland said Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly must instruct NPHET to attend.
He said there is an urgency to making swift decisions in the interest of the developing a plan.
The Government said it aims to have a plan in place by 19 July, but the hospitality sector is seeking assurances that they will open on that date.
One of the proposals suggested last week as a way of reopening indoor hospitality was the use of vaccination passports – an idea that has proved controversial.
The discussions will also focus on whether antigen testing can be used to allow unvaccinated people enter bars and restaurants.
NPHET is opposed to this, but the signs from Government are that it will be on the table.
Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, Mr Cummins said that the Government needs to “step up to the plate and work night and day” to get a viable, authentic plan to reopen indoor dining fully on 19 July.
Mr Cummins said the RAI needs to sit down with NPHET to see if it will accept an economic bonus for hospitality that sees all social distancing guidelines removed if only fully vaccinated people are permitted to dine indoors.
He said the crunch talks are critical for the industry and that it is entering the talks in good faith that a plan and date to reopen will be set.
Whether the Government is considering PCR testing, antigen testing or a green pass, it needs to discuss the options and logistics and explain what work has happened behind the scenes to see this become operational, Mr Cummins added.
This requires NPHET to be “at the table from the get go” but that “unfortunately this is not the case,” he stated.
Mr Cummins said there are now seven days to get a plan in place as businesses need time to re-stock and get organised.
Chief executive of the Licensed Vintners Association Donal O’Keeffe said that its members are firmly opposed to a vaccine pass system for pubs and that it wants to reopen for all customers on 19 July with strict public health measures in place.
Mr O’Keeffe said a vaccine pass system is unfair to staff, customers and businesses and the LVA is “firmly against it and I don’t believe it is the right way forward”.
He said hospitality should reopen in the same way that hotels are operating, with all customers admitted with measures in place including strict social distancing, table service only, contact tracing, hand sanitising and a 60% reduced capacity.
Vintners are open to discussing a “State-sponsored antigen testing scheme”, but it has no information about how this will work, he added.
A Professor of Experimental Immunology at Trinity College Dublin said antigen testing “could be a recipe for disaster” if people think “they can do what they like”.
Professor Kingston Mills said the use of antigen tests “would be open to abuse” if they were self-administered.
Speaking on RTÉ’s Today with Claire Byrne, he said: “The problem with that, is we have no way of verifying that the test was actually taken with your saliva, your nasal swab, so that that would be open to abuse. I think it’s really going to have to be a situation where the tests are supervised.”
Prof Mills, who was among a number of experts tasked with carrying out an initial investigation into the use of antigen tests in Ireland, said the group did not explore specifically their use in the hospitality sector.
“Our recommendations weren’t specifically around pubs and restaurants. The benefits of these tests are best seen in workplaces large sporting and cultural events,” he said.