Fears for rush on off-licences as Government considers restricting alcohol sales

Fears for rush on off-licences as Government considers restricting alcohol sales

Four ministers have supported the idea of possibly restricting off-licences' opening hours in a bid to reduce house parties and social gatherings that have been linked to the spread of Covid-19.

Concerns have been raised about a rush on off-licences following Cabinet’s mooted clampdown on alcohol sales.

Four ministers have supported the idea of possibly restricting off-licences' opening hours in a bid to reduce house parties and social gatherings that have been linked to the spread of Covid-19.

Tara Buckley, director-general of the Retail Grocery Dairy and Allied Trades Association (RGDATA) which represents more than 4,000 independent shops, said that a change in off-licence opening hours and operation could cause queues which would be difficult for small retailers to manage safely.

“If the Government announces something about curbing off-licences they can create a run on people arriving to buy alcohol,” Ms Buckley said.

“And if that’s created, it adds to queues, it adds to customer frustration."

Customer anger and frustration have already increased in recent weeks, Ms Buckley said, with shopkeepers having to contend with people who refuse to wear masks or socially distance. 

People are likely to continue to buy what they want anyway, and will just change their shopping patterns to do it.

"We’re not sure how this would change people’s partying habits," she said.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the issue hasn't been given serious consideration by government yet but said there has been feedback from both public representatives and the general public around the alcohol issue and socialising.

"The fundamental issue with Covid-19 is to reduce our social contacts and reduce congregation, reduce house parties," he said.

"I think if we concentrate on the guidance that's there already and the regulations that are there already and adhere to those I think we would make a huge effort to keep the numbers down and stop the growth of the virus."

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said he had heard Minister of State Patrick O'Donovan's view on the issue. 

"I think he has a point. We all know that alcohol makes people more relaxed it causes us to drop our guard and I think when people are drinking, and particularly if they're drinking in the privacy of their own home, social distancing lapses and that's just understandable, that's what happens when people are drinking, it's a social lubricant and causes people to drop their guard and maybe engage in behavior that helps the virus to spread," he said.

"I suppose the question we have to consider as a Government is whether reducing opening hours actually makes a difference or would people just stock up early, or order delivery so that's the kind of thing we have to think through."

Earlier, Mr O’Donovan told RTÉ that off-licence opening hours and the volume of alcohol being bought must be urgently examined.

The minister of state for the Office of Public Works said that people are leaving supermarkets with shopping trolleys full of alcohol and “we know they’re not being taken home for an after-dinner aperitif”.

The “uncontrolled” consumption of alcohol at house parties was contributing to the spread of the virus, he said, and the issue of off-licences needed to be considered by the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) and the Government.

Social Protection Minister Heather Humphreys first suggested restricting off-licence opening hours on Monday. She was supported by Justice Minister Helen McEntee and Minister of State for Roads Hildegarde Naughton.

But Evelyn Jones, government affairs director with The National Off-Licence Association (NOffLA) warned Government not to penalise the small, family-owned businesses her association represents.

She called instead for the "immediate commencement" of Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP), which she said has been available to Government as an option to restrict the sale of very cheap alcohol since 2018.

“As small, independent off-licences, we don’t typically see bulk purchases of alcohol as one would in larger mixed retailers/supermarkets," said Ms Jones. "Rather, our customers would be buying in smaller volumes, often looking for a more premium product for special occasions." 

However, with new restrictions now on family/social gatherings, we are seeing sales volumes gradually decline for these kinds of purchases too.

The call for increasing the cost of cheap alcohol was also made by Alcohol Action Ireland while also warning of the potential for ‘panic-buying’ with such a change.  

But the national independent advocate for reducing alcohol harmfully supported ministers' calls for restricting alcohol sales too, calling the mooted restrictions "prudent".

Cheap alcohol “pouring into people’s homes” has been a problem since the start of the pandemic, a statement from Alcohol Action said.

In April, the organisation reported a 44% increase in sales, in May it highlighted a 70% increases, in June a 93% increase,  in July 76%, and a further 44% in August.     

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