Despite the closure of Debenhams, Topshop, Eason’s and Thorntons, along with a growing number of independent retailers, the sad reality is that the full impact of the pandemic has yet to be felt on our high streets, which is why Retail NI has urged the Executive to produce clear timelines for the safe reopening of our high streets so we can begin the long road toward recovery.
The Executive has listened and acted on many Retail NI proposals, such as the two-year rates holiday, generous support grants and the high street voucher scheme scheduled for summer.
We have also at long last seen the formation of the High Streets Taskforce, which will look at a longer-term vision based upon our town and city centres being eco-systems of many types of businesses and services.
However, when it comes to relaxation of the Covid-19 restrictions, there is a growing frustration amongst the retail, hospitality and broader small business sector that they are not being listened to.
These businesses cannot survive on rate relief and grants alone. They need to safely reopen and trade again.
Sadly, the Executive’s plan falls far short of what is needed for a viable roadmap.
It lacks detail, contains vague criteria for moving between phases and gives no certainty for retailers to plan ahead.
The very least that should have been included were broad timelines to give retailers some idea of the next steps.
Many business owners are asking why governments in the rest of the UK have given indicative dates for reopening when our Executive has given us no dates. Nor has it provided any criteria for the reopening of high streets.
This is profoundly disappointing for small business owners who are on their last legs, literally running out of money and hope for the future.
On too many occasions to list, the Executive failed to consult with business representatives before making decisions on the Covid regulations and instead summoned us to meetings after decisions had been made.
It needs to stop doing things to us and do things with us if we are to get through this endgame phase of the pandemic.
We are also concerned that not enough is being done to prepare our high streets for safe reopening, whenever we do get the green light.
It is clear that, in the last brief reopening in December, the rollout of Covid marshals/ambassadors and public hand sanitisers was patchy and, in many high streets, non-existent.
It varied hugely across the 11 council areas and it was apparent that the coordination across the Executive and local authorities was not adequate.
Retail NI wants to see the Executive produce a regional framework outlining the roles and responsibilities of Covid marshals, potentially centrally source the public hand sanitisers and draw up clear guidance for business compliance signage.
All of this will provide reassurance to shoppers that high streets are safe to return to and will reduce the transmission of the virus.
This reopening must be a proper partnership of the Executive, councils and business to ensure that we have a planned and, above all else, safe process.
Retailers have already invested more than £25m to keep their stores safe for shoppers and staff and are committed to continuing to play their part.
By producing such a reopening plan, the Executive can give retail, hospitality and other small businesses more light and less tunnel, more confidence in the future.
There is absolutely no reason why, as a first step, our non-essential retailers should not be given the green light to reopen at the end of April, with further dates for hospitality and close-contact services.
We have made remarkable progress on our vaccination scheme and seen real reductions in the numbers of new cases, deaths and hospital admissions.
But we also need to think about the loss of livelihoods, businesses and the challenge of a mental health epidemic.
We need an urgent reset of the relationship between business and the Executive to ensure we are on the path to a vibrant post-pandemic economy with wellbeing at its core.