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No timeline for easing coronavirus lockdown will make planning difficult, claims Northern Ireland business groups


General view of Belfast city centre street as it remains quiet.

Photo by Philip Magowan / Press Eye

General view of Belfast city centre street as it remains quiet. Photo by Philip Magowan / Press Eye

Philip Magowan / PressEye

General view of Belfast city centre street as it remains quiet. Photo by Philip Magowan / Press Eye

Northern Ireland business groups have welcomed the Stormont Executive's five-point plan to ease lockdown restrictions - but said a lack of dates has made planning more difficult.

And the hotel trade has hit out after it failed to get a specific mention in the document and said that its reopening is likely to lag far behind competitors in the Republic and Great Britain.

Only one business leader - Angela McGowan, director of the CBI in Northern Ireland - welcomed the gradual approach to reopening.

The Coronavirus Executive Approach to Decision Making provides five steps for different elements of life and business in Northern Ireland - such as travel, education, retail, cultural, sports and leisure and work - to take on the way to reopening.

Step 1 of the retail plan allows for the opening of outdoor-based retail such as garden centres, with the final step permitting the reopening of 'hospitality retail', defined as restaurants, cafes and pubs.

And a plan for the world of work also concludes that while all people should return to work, remote working should be maintained where possible.

The document also sets out the impact on the economy of the pandemic and lockdown so far - saying that the impact of each month of shutdown is like "a large recession".

And it states that so far, Northern Ireland's overall economic output is 25 to 30% below normal.

"At these rates, every month of lockdown will reduce annual output at the end of the year by around 2% to 3%," it states.

"In simple terms, on its own, each month of shutdown is akin to a large recession."

And while the government's furloughing scheme had saved large numbers of people from redundancy, the document says unemployment is being disproportionately concentrated in certain areas, such as the self-employed, people on temporary or zero-hours contracts, or those who had only recently started a new job.

Belfast Chamber chief executive Simon Hamilton said the publication of the plan was a positive move.

But he added: "It is disappointing that it does not include even indicative timings such as those that accompanied similar plans elsewhere which would allow businesses to plan properly for their reopening."

Aodhan Connolly, director of the NI Retail Consortium, also said the lack of dates was a letdown.

"Northern Ireland retailers of all sizes and formats are working hard to get ready to reopen safely, putting in place the necessary social distancing and hygiene measures to protect customers and staff," he said.

"We welcome visibility on the route out of lockdown but we will need to see a timeline to allow retailers and our supply chains to prepare."

But Ms McGowan said taking a "flexible approach" and putting health first was the only way to restart the economy.

"Getting Northern Ireland back to work in a way that prioritises safety will minimise the impact on livelihoods from this pandemic," she said.

"It must be done gradually, based on science, to retain public confidence. Moving too far, too fast could set back the economic restart.

"Only by employers, employees and unions working together with the Executive will we begin to build back better, setting out a vision for the future of our economy based on fairness and sustainability."

Ann McGregor, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce, said the plan was a significant step forward but said the absence of dates meant planning ahead would be a challenge for business.

"Businesses share the NI Executive's ambition to see more people return safely to work over the coming weeks - and they will do everything they can to protect employees and customers, maintain social distancing and operate successfully.

"They now need to see the Executive's plan supported by clear guidance.

"It is imperative that companies have detailed advice on what will need to change in the workplace, including clarity on the use of PPE, so that they can make plans to reopen safely."

And Janice Gault, head of the NI Hotels Federation, said it was disappointing that hotels had been left out of the process and were not explicitly mentioned.

She said she expected hotels would be included in a category of hospitality firms, which will open in step five. First Minister Arlene Foster has indicated that step five could unfold as far away as December.

Ms Gault said: "We need to have enough notice to put plans in place and to take all the necessary steps to ensure a compliant environment for everyone. Whilst this is not surprising, it's disappointing to see little clarity around the process of exiting lockdown.

"For any business, a process without dates is of limited benefit. Once again, we find ourselves in the unenviable position of being stuck between an industry south of the border, due to open on July 20, and hotels in England looking at an early July date."

Earlier this week, she joined colleagues in the pub industry to call for a pathway to reopening.

The industry has said that 15,800 jobs in the industry - which usually employs 65,000 people - are at risk due to lockdown.

Belfast Telegraph