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Coronavirus: Northern Ireland firms require clear plans on reopening, say Chamber leaders


Simon Hamilton

Simon Hamilton

Simon Hamilton

Chambers of Commerce from around Northern Ireland will today urge the Executive to make clear its plans to reopen the economy.

The chief executives of chambers in Belfast, the north coast, Londonderry and Newry will also tell Stormont's Economy Committee that the Executive will need to make long-term investment to rebuild the economy.

They said that 43% of their membership had shut up shop, the majority in retail, hospitality and leisure. And they said they expected many businesses to struggle for some time ahead.

In a statement ahead of the joint evidence session this morning, the business bosses - including former Finance Minister Simon Hamilton, who leads Belfast Chamber - said: "Covid-19 has taken a huge toll on the health of thousands of local people and has, sadly, accounted for the lives of too many family members and loved loves all across Northern Ireland.

"Whilst the health effects of this pandemic will be with us for some time, we can, because of the heroics of our health service staff and the fortitude of so many who have stayed at home to protect the NHS and save lives, now say that we are passed the peak. That is good news."

But they explained it was right to turn thoughts towards getting the economy going, as collective efforts were helping Northern Ireland get to grips with coronavirus.

"That isn't to say we demand a date when all businesses open. That can, and must, depend on when it is safe to do so. Rather, we are saying it is appropriate to commence planning how many businesses can safely open up and trade once more," the said.

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But the leaders - Mr Hamilton, along with Causeway chief Karen Yates, Derry boss Paul Clany and Newry's chief executive Colm Shannon - said businesses needed a timescale for planning their reopening.

That would take more than just reopening their doors, they said, adding: "With social distancing measures likely to have to remain in place for the foreseeable future, that will have an impact on those businesses as they have to adjust the layout of their premises, introduce queuing systems and put screens and other safety measures in place.

"As well as providing businesses with the clear advice and guidance that they will require to open safely and give confidence to their staff and their customers, it is also the case that even as businesses might begin to open again, footfall is not going to return to pre-coronavirus levels overnight. For the majority, it will be a long time before we are anywhere near business as usual."

It comes as Economy Minister Diane Dodds announced a £40m hardship fund to help small businesses who have not been able to secure other grant support.

The business chiefs added: "This week's announcement by the Executive of £700m for the City and Growth Deals, will be an important first step in stimulating economic growth and job creation right across Northern Ireland.

"A great many businesses are going to struggle for some time to come. The support that the Government and the Executive have provided so far has been gratefully received by those who have been eligible."

But ongoing support would be needed for the hardest-hit sectors, they said, with an extension of rates relief support one possibility.