The Covid-19 pandemic has been devastating, over 4,000 deaths across the island, thousands ill, many facing long-term effects, and our health and social service staff under severe pressure.
The economic crisis is still unfolding. Thousands of business owners and self-employed people who spent years building up their businesses had to stop work overnight and workers saw their income disappear. Significant financial interventions have been made by the Executive to supports jobs, workers and their families through hundreds of millions of pounds in business support grants.
However, funding has come in dribs and drabs from the British Treasury and made it difficult to plan interventions. The blanket supports put in place by the British Treasury through the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and Self-Employed Income Support Scheme have left groups excluded, some not even able to access Universal Credit. The economy department has designed several support schemes but despite constant lobbying from Sinn Fein and excluded groups, clear gaps remain almost 10 months later.
It beggars belief therefore that just last week the economy committee was briefed that £54m of funding for Covid support schemes was being returned to the Executive.
What this shows is a lack of foresight and contingency planning by the department and Invest NI. Funding bids made previously were for recovery when clearly advice and modelling showed a second Covid wave would come in the autumn.
Instead of returning millions to the Executive, the Economy Minister needs to ensure further schemes are urgently developed for those who continue to be excluded. Small and micro business owners and self-employed workers are really struggling to pay their bills and feed their families. Students continue to struggle with rent for properties they aren't living in and have no part-time jobs to supplement their income. The hardest-hit sectors, hospitality, retail and tourism, which support thousands of workers who face redundancy if they go out of business.
There cannot be a repeat of the lack of contingency planning. With the continuing pressure on our health system, the current restrictions have been extended until the beginning of March. A roadmap is needed to take us from where we are now, funding bids must be made for economic recovery that will actually make a difference.
We must develop skills programmes for workers who will be victims of inevitable redundancies once the furlough scheme comes to end. There needs to be specific plans for young people and women who have been badly hit by the pandemic. A generation of young people must not be limited by this pandemic. Businesses need practical supports to get back on their feet. That includes support to respond to Brexit and take advantage of the opportunities of the all-island economy; support for alternative business models that build on community experiences during the pandemic.
Tackling the climate and biodiversity crises must be prioritised, supporting job creation in sectors such as green energy and infrastructure to drive rapid decarbonisation.
Skills development, strengthening workers' rights, business support and decarbonisation, would be a good starting point for a fairer recovery.
Dr Caoimhe Archibald is Sinn Fein MLA for East Derry and chair of the NI Assembly Economy Committee