CONCERN has been raised by the Chairperson of the Covid-19 Committee that restrictions associated with the coronavirus have disproportionately impacted on small business and driven economic activity “into the hands of multinationals”.
Deputy Michael McNamara made his remarks this week as the committee heard from representatives of the business sector. The Scariff-based deputy handed over the chairperson’s role to Deputy Mary Butler, in order to question witnesses Danny McCoy of IBEC and Neil McDonnell of ISME.
He noted that a concerning trend during lockdown had been a boost in business for multinationals at the expense of small business. “One of the most worrying economic or financial aspects of the restrictions was the extent to which all economic activity was driven into the hands of multinationals, many of which are headquartered outside of Ireland and pay their taxes elsewhere,” he told the committee. “Farmers’ markets, for example, were inexplicably shut down and people had to go to supermarkets, all of which are indoor, in order to buy food even though all the scientific evidence shows that the risk of congregations indoors is far greater than outdoors. Likewise, with drink suppliers, we hear anecdotally that there was a big increase in the sale of alcohol but it was primarily the big companies which were in a position to benefit from that rather than small micro breweries.”
In response to Deputy McNamara’s question as to how the witnesses to reverse and change the practice of favouring the big multiples over smaller outlets, Mr McCoy said that only the reopening of the economy would reveal the scale of the issue.
“This goes to the heart of what we have been calling for because the reopening will reveal the scale or the type of problem we are dealing with now,” the IBEC CEO said. “For instance, in the case of alcohol consumption, the manufacturing and production data tells us that alcohol sales and consumption in Ireland were down during the pandemic. There are different channels through which people are consuming products now. We need an assessment of whether these are new channels that will persist or whether behavioural change will come but without reopening, we are in a completely artificial period.”
Raising a question over confusion over the reopening of outlets like garden centres, Deputy McNamara said it seemed the government was waiting for the bigger operators to make the decision first. “It seemed to me that the Government waited until it got an imprimatur from Woodies and then announced that people could go to garden centres,” he said, “but most of the small, family-owned garden centres in Clare, where I live, were open.”
In response, Mr McCoy said business models were complex, especially if a company was deemed to be involved in providing an essential service. Mr McDonnell, CEO of ISME said his organisation was opposed to “blanket prohibitions”. “It is more sensible to say to businesses that if they follow precautions A, B and C, then this is what they may or may not be able to do… Rather than issue these blanket fatwas, we should tell businesses that if they take some precautions they can do X and if they take increased precautions they can do Y and let them look after themselves.”