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Get big public sector projects moving to revive our battered economy, Stormont is urged


First Minister Arlene Foster with staff from Dougan Contracts in Bangor, who are making face masks

First Minister Arlene Foster with staff from Dougan Contracts in Bangor, who are making face masks

Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press E

First Minister Arlene Foster with staff from Dougan Contracts in Bangor, who are making face masks

Rebuilding Northern Ireland's economy following lockdown could take an effort on a post-war scale depending on the severity of the damage, it's been claimed.

First Minister Arlene Foster has confirmed that the Executive is looking at a potential recovery plan for when the lockdown is lifted.

But there was no detail of any plans at Tuesday's Covid-19 briefing as she warned that there would be no return to "pre-Covid-19 routines".

Mrs Foster said: "While it is sensible for the public and private sector to be considering how we reboot, we must not lose sight of our primary focus to flatten the curve of the pandemic and to follow the public health advice."

She said that the pandemic would have long-term global economic repercussions which employers should consider when there is a return to work.

"Can I facilitate remote working among my employees? Are there technological solutions we have introduced to the way we are doing business during the crisis, and could continue with once the initial threat recedes? And are there creative ways to keep production lines going whilst guaranteeing the safety of our workers?" she added.

"Those of us in government are working very hard to map out a path to recovery to support every part of society, but the recovery will be graduated."

Stephen Kelly, chief executive of Manufacturing NI, said a plan was needed for a safe restart to business, and for a safe rebuilding.

And with job losses likely to be concentrated in sectors like tourism, construction and manufacturing, which are largely located outside of Belfast and Derry, Mr Kelly said that those provincial areas should be targeted for support.

Experts said that Stormont should expedite capital spending projects, such as the North-South Interconnector.

Economist John Simpson said he believed private firms should not expect further generous payouts from Government, but should instead "wait for the economy to pick up again and gain its own momentum".

But he urged the Executive to make progress on its public sector capital programme, which would bring work to private firms.

Gareth Hetherington, economist and director of the Ulster University economic policy centre, said there would be deeper support required if the economic contraction is compounded for every month of shutdown.

And he referred to the large-scale US plan for the rebuilding of Western Europe following the Second World War, known as the Marshall Plan.

"There is the potential for the economic impact to be exponential," he said.

"If you're looking at a bounceback from a three-month lockdown, you could be getting into a very significant post-war effort, like a Marshall Plan-type effort depending on the scale. But that's uncertain just at the minute and we don't have the data to make that judgment."

He said the Executive lacked the policy levers of Westminster - such as most forms of tax deferrals and borrowing - to help restart the economy, other than the ability to potentially extend a three-month rates holiday to a year. But he added: "It's unlikely that businesses are going to get back to pre-crisis levels of investment straight away, not that that was at high levels.

"But that should create spare capacity in the economy so the Government should fast-track investment plans, if there is a potential to bring those on quickly.

"Firms will be fighting over public sector contracts, so will provide reasonable value for money. All of that work will start to create confidence and spending in the economy."

And he said that with more firms and organisations likely to permit more working from home, the Executive should also look to encourage investment in telecoms infrastructure such as broadband in rural areas.

Co Down businessman Connaire McGreevy, who owns construction industry business CTS Projects, as well as a bar and a brewery, said the rates holiday should be extended to 12 months.

And he added the Executive should give an indication of what a phased opening-up of business will involve. "We need to be able to see what will come first so that people can start getting their minds towards it," he said.

Belfast Telegraph