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Coronavirus: NI business leaders call for cross-border cooperation on reopening economy

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Gardai and PSNI officers mount armed coronavirus checkpoints on the border with Northern Ireland at Carrickarnon Co Louth. PA Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Gardai and PSNI officers mount armed coronavirus checkpoints on the border with Northern Ireland at Carrickarnon Co Louth. PA Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

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Colm Shannon said the majority of firms in the Newry area had shut.

Colm Shannon said the majority of firms in the Newry area had shut.

Gardai and PSNI officers mount armed coronavirus checkpoints on the border with Northern Ireland at Carrickarnon Co Louth. PA Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Business leaders in cross-border areas have suggested the reopening of the economy in Northern Ireland could be coordinated with the Republic's plan.

Paul Clancy, the head of Londonderry Chamber, and Colm Shannon, leader of Newry Chamber, said the volume of cross-border travel and work in their locations meant it would be helpful to be in step with plans in the Republic.

They were giving evidence to the Assembly’s Economy Committee on Wednesday morning on the impact of Covid-19 and the prospect of the reopening of the economy, along with Simon Hamilton, chief executive of Belfast Chamber and Karen Yates, head of Causeway Chamber.

Mr Clancy said: “It would be very beneficial to try and coordinate as much as possible across the border.”

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Colm Shannon said the majority of firms in the Newry area had shut.

Colm Shannon said the majority of firms in the Newry area had shut.

Colm Shannon said the majority of firms in the Newry area had shut.

He said 60% of members of Londonderry Chamber members had indicated plans to furlough staff but that he hoped that the furlough scheme could be extended beyond June to help stricken sectors.

Colm Shannon, of Newry Chamber, said that nearly 80% of firms in the area were closed or operating from home.

About 70% of firms had furloughed all or some of their staff. But he said that firms who were considering reopening their staff now felt that their staffing requirements would be around 25% below the levels of March.

Mr Shannon said: “We have previously been one of the fastest-growing economies in Northern Ireland but today nearly 80% of firms are closed or operating from home. The big challenge of Covid-19 has been its sudden nature, with no time to prepare and markets and customers disappearing overnight.”

He said rebuilding consumer confidence after lockdown would be crucial and may require some coordination with the Republic of Ireland’s approach due to Newry’s location close to the border.

Belfast Chamber of Trade chief executive Simon Hamilton told MLAs that only 6% of businesses in the city remained physically open, only a third were eligible for either the Executive's £10,000 or £25,000 grant schemes and 83% of businesses are furloughing workers.

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General view of Belfast city centre on Wednesday as many businesses remain closed due to the Coronavirus.  Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

General view of Belfast city centre on Wednesday as many businesses remain closed due to the Coronavirus. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press E

General view of Belfast city centre on Wednesday as many businesses remain closed due to the Coronavirus. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

He said the coronavirus impact on the city had been significant.

"Given the fact that the city is the economic driver of the entire region, accounting for 30% of Northern Ireland's jobs, produces a quarter of the total rates take and generates 50% of out of state visitor spend."

He added: "It isn't expected that footfall will pick up to anywhere near pre-coronavirus levels for some time to come so those businesses will need ongoing support to help them through these tough times which will be with us for quite a while."

Mr Hamilton said Belfast's performance sent "ripples" around other parts of Northern Ireland.

Last week Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced a phased approach to reopening in the Republic, including the reopening of small shops with a small number of staff on June 8.

Mr Shannon added: “We’d like to see an equivalent and realistic plan in Northern Ireland as well, and some form of alignment so we don’t have two tiers with one system on one side of the border and another in our area.”

Belfast Telegraph