Vaccine passports threaten last orders for Northern Ireland’s pubs and restaurants

Another major gripe is that unlicensed premises have been excluded, for now at least. The exemption means that during the daytime, when people generally visit for food and soft drinks rather than alcohol, Wolsey is trading against cafes where customers can simply walk in without showing their passport. “What half-wit thought of that?” the frustrated boss asks. 

Meanwhile Colin Neill, chief executive of Hospitality Ulster, warns that annoyance among punters over the passport is resulting in “high levels of aggression” towards staff. 

“One member said they’d been doing it for an hour and he’d been called a b—— twice. The government says this is to keep you open. But then they say there might be more restrictions. What we’re seeing is rather than it being seen as making us safer, it’s really sending a message that we’re high risk, so it’s putting people off coming.”

Lobby groups meanwhile stress there is no requirement for the passports on crowded public transport, or even the restaurant car of the Belfast to Dublin train services. They also note the irony of the confusing Stormont signals after ministers agreed to give £100 vouchers to 1.2m people in Northern Ireland to support high street spending – a scheme which runs until December 15 – while making it harder for them to part with the money. 

And unlike previous times, there is no financial support just when the post-pandemic bills are landing in the form of VAT and rent, and there is no hint of when the policy restrictions will be lifted. Roger Pollen, head of the Federation of Small Business’s Northern Ireland branch, says: “We’re not subsidy junkies, we just want them to get the policy right.” 

He accuses policymakers of a “fudge” to circumvent fundamental objections to mandatory vaccinations by including options on lateral flow and PCR tests. “Given you’ve opened up that wriggle room, the question then is what’s the purpose of the policy? The purpose, presumably, is to make sure public spaces are safer. 

“If that’s the case, why are you only doing it to the private sector, which is on its knees? Why aren’t you doing it on trains and buses, and particularly hospital waiting areas, given all of this is about taking the burden off the health service? We just find the inconsistency really unacceptable.”

The province’s Department of Health says its response has been led by “the latest medical and scientific advice”, but admits no economic impact assessment of the policy has been prepared and adds that further financial support is a “matter for the Executive”. 

But the policy also hits many smaller Northern Irish businesses already at the sharp end of the conclusion of the Brexit transition period. The shadow of threats from Westminster to invoke Article 16 and suspend the Northern Ireland Protocol – potentially triggering more uncertainty – has only been lifted temporarily. While some have taken advantage of having feet in both UK and EU markets others have been “badly affected”, Pollen adds. 

He says: “If you’re part of the economic minority that only brings in stuff from Great Britain, you need to be protected as well. You can’t just say, ‘Oh well, it’s working well, for the manufacturers who are exporting. That’s not good enough’”.

With vaccine passports looking set to add to the burdens of a vulnerable economy subject to much uncertainty, Beannchor’s Wolsey is determined to plough on.

 “I think we’re pretty resilient, we won’t be putting the shutters down,” he says. “But sometimes you feel for the hospitality industry, not only in Northern Ireland, but in general, it’s death by 1000 cuts.”

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