Tuesday, 29 September 2020

Questions (110)

Joe Carey

Question:

110. Deputy Joe Carey asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the status of the decision to open heritage sites during the Covid-19 pandemic; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26268/20]

View answer

Written answers (Question to Public)

In line with Government guidelines and Public Health advices relating to the COVID 19 emergency, OPW closed many of the heritage sites in its care and control to the public on March 15th.

OPW parks and gardens became critical facilities in their locales in the initial period of the lockdown where travel was restricted to within 2Km of one’s home. OPW staff working at these sites which included locations such as John F. Kennedy Arboretum in New Ross, Kilkenny Castle Parkland, Doneraile Park, Glebe Gallery Gardens in Donegal and the Phoenix Park in Dublin continued to work to care for and present the properties to the highest standards while ensuring the safety of all visitors to our sites.

In May, the Government published the road map for reopening society and the economy which set out very specific phasing for the reopening of outdoor and indoor visitor facilities including museums, galleries and heritage attractions. In line with this roadmap of phased reopening, the OPW developed a clear plan for how various heritage sites nationwide would return to operation across Phases 1 -4 and what facilities would be available to patrons. A key part of the approach is to ensure that sites could only reopen where it is possible to do so in accordance with public health guidance and, in particular, with the Return to Work Safely Protocol published by Government. In addition, the OPW emphasised the need to address the needs of vulnerable groups and has made special provision at certain sites in relation to people who have been cocooning. This plan was published on line and clearly set out for example if car parking, toilets and cafes were open, operational and what level of service visitors could be expect.

The vast majority of OPW Heritage sites with Visitor services therefore reopened to the public by Phase 3 (June 29th ). The majority are operating with some form of changes e.g. no group tours or self-guide visits only, in order to meet the public health guidelines for social distancing, the safe return to work of our staff and the safe return of visitors to our attractions.

There are certain tourism site locations however where the position cannot be mitigated sufficiently to operate safely and so these locations must therefore remain closed in the short term and possibly for the remainder of the 2020 visitor season. This very limited number of sites includes for example, Skellig Michael.

In relation to admission charges and access, in July, as part of the Government’s Economic Stimulus Package the Government announced an initiative to support local tourism and the restarting of the hospitality sector by providing free or reduced admission to OPW heritage sites nationwide. The purpose of this was to ensure that domestic visitors would choose to holiday at home but would also choose to explore the national heritage estate across the country and our heritage sites would act as significant attractors of tourism in their locales.

I am also pleased to advise that OPW Heritage Services has engaged with the Failte Ireland Covid Safety Charter and a large number of sites have been audited and certified with the Covid Safety certificate. Visitors can be assured that sites are operating to the highest safety standards and OPW is delivering a very safe and enjoyable experience for both our staff and our visitors.

During the summer as a measure of our confidence in the strength of our visitor offering OPW also formally opened a number of new heritage offerings such as the Viewing Point at the Blaskets Centre in Kerry and the newly refurbished Carlingford Castle in Co. Louth, both projects which were supported with capital funding from Failte Ireland.

OPW continues to operate Heritage sites in line with Government guidelines on public health. To this end, the recently published plan for living with Covid 19 sets out clear guidance for what can and cannot continue to operate at the various levels in the plan. For example in Dublin which is now at Level 3, a number of indoor heritage attractions are closed to the public for three weeks including Dublin Castle and Kilmainham Gaol. However popular outdoor sites which can remain open at Level 3 such as the National Botanic Gardens, St. Stephen’s Green and the Iveagh Gardens are fully open to the public, seven days a week.

I would encourage the public to consult Heritageireland.ie and opw.ie to access the most up-to-date information on access to our sites which are open to visitors. OPW heritage properties which continue to play an important part in supporting local tourism across the Country. A number of iconic sites including Rock of Cashel, Kilkenny Castle and Bru na Boinne will remain fully open to the public throughout the Winter in line with the prevailing public health advices and government restrictions as they might apply in the months ahead.