Credit: Gript

DONAL HORGAN: Who are the Covid Winners?

We have all heard about the deaths, the lockdowns and the business closures but have there been any actual winners in Ireland’s ongoing Covid-19 pandemic?

Strange to say but there have been plenty of winners although most of them prefer not to talk about it. Instead, the view appears to be that their good fortune is just one of those unforeseen things from what has been an ongoing nightmare for most Irish people.

Surely State broadcaster RTÉ has to be in the gold medal category when it comes to Covid winners. No one, least of all the Montrose management, needs reminding about the perilous state of RTÉ’s finances. Even with a massive public subsidy of close on €200m a year, the station has continued to lose money owing to its declining audience share and related advertising revenue.

The last decade has been a particularly grim one for RTÉ. In 2017, the organisation sold off a section of its Donnybrook campus for €107m in an effort to keep the wolf from the door. Notwithstanding this, it lost €13m in 2018 and a further €7.2m in 2019.

However, in 2020 – the year of the Covid pandemic and Ireland’s record lockdown – RTÉ managed to suddenly reverse its fortunes and turned in a very respectable surplus of €7.9m! This represented a stunning €15m turn around on the previous year’s loss. How did they do it?

Commercial advertising may have collapsed but who can forget the incessant doom-laden Covid advertising carried by RTÉ and the Irish media industry during much of 2020 warning people to stay at home? The State or more correctly, you the tax payers, paid for it all and it helped RTÉ’s balance sheet no end.

The other part of RTÉ’s winning formula in 2020 was the cancellation of the Olympics, Euro 2020 and a host of Irish matches and events. As a public service broadcaster, RTÉ receives substantial public funding precisely in order to cover such events. With these events cancelled, it seems that RTÉ simply pocketed this money.

It is estimated that the Donnybrook media organisation saved about €30m in 2020 by not having to cover these cancelled events.  Cancelling in-house programmes such as Fair City on public health grounds also added to these savings. Interestingly, no one at RTÉ is talking about refunding that portion of the €160 TV Licence which it saved during the 2020 lockdown.

Public service broadcaster RTÉ was by no means alone in the Covid winners enclosure. The private sector has also shown itself to have more than a passing interest in the same concept. Have you ever wondered why that take-away coffee, the one you are drinking from a paper cup while standing in the rain, is costing you the same as a sit down coffee served in a real cup indoors?

What about access to toilets? These days customers are more likely to encounter a sign snippily informing them that they are closed due to Covid before sending them on their way in their elusive search for a public convenience with a reminder about the importance of maintaining 2m social distancing!

Neither have the banks been behind in the Covid winners stakes. It is clear that the pillar banks have been under pressure from online banking competitors for some time. That has meant only one thing – the wholesale closure of bank branches around Ireland.

In March of this year, Bank of Ireland announced that it was closing 88 of its branches in the Republic which amounted to a 30% reduction of its entire branch network. Its main competitor AIB has also been following the same policy direction in an effort to compete with newer online rivals.

What is really interesting, however, is the manner in which the banks have presented this and, in particular, how they have used the pandemic to publicly press the PR case for branch closures. In its announcement, Bank of Ireland cited the fact that customer visits to its affected branches had declined by 60% in recent years which, it claimed, demonstrated that people were now switching to online banking anyway.

Of course, this is somewhat disingenuous. A visit to any bank branch in recent years has involved wrestling your way past a member of staff whose sole function appears to be to stop you from making contact with a cashier. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that visits to bank branches have been declining – banks have been doing everything humanly possible to make them decline.

What the banks didn’t say in their press releases is that a lockdown with its message to remain at home rhymed perfectly with their own stated ambition to drastically reduce their branch networks in order to compete with newer online rivals. Clearly, many lofty statements by corporate players about ‘public health’ and ‘health and safety’ are frequently nothing more than a ruse to mask other entirely different motives.

Perhaps, we’re not ‘all in this together’ after all?


Donal Horgan


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