Just a few months after the establishment of the new NI Executive following a three year stasis, ministers were faced with their greatest challenge. Economy Minister Diane Dodds writes for Ulster Business about what her department is doing now to support business but what new measures need to be introduced to ensure a long-term future
When I took up post in January I did not imagine that we would be facing a life-changing pandemic on such a global scale.
Back then, I set out goals for this mandate. I wanted to ensure that Northern Ireland continued to have unfettered access to our most important market in GB, benefits from new international trade deals and that we had a sensible migration policy post Brexit. My ambition was to introduce parental bereavement leave, grow our tourism sector, drive up investment and job creation and direct more funding into skills.
Within a matter of weeks, those priorities changed. The brutal impact of coronavirus means that the health of our population has been our primary focus. However, it is not a binary choice between health and economy. Mitigating the economic damage is essential.
We have lived through recessions before and seen government stimulus plans based on encouraging people to spend money in shops, restaurants and on holidays to boost the economy. This was neither possible nor appropriate when dealing with Covid-19.
What was required by government was bold, swift action. The link between the population’s health and the economy’s health is clear. As people faced the prospect of losing their job, they worried about supporting themselves and their families adding to an already-stressful environment.
The Executive and the UK Government have acted quickly. The financial grant schemes, rates relief, bank lending scheme, job retention scheme and support for the self-employed has been essential in ensuring that the economy does not implode.
My department has so far paid out over a quarter of a billion pounds in targeted direct assistance to over 25,000 businesses across Northern Ireland through £10,000 and £25,000 grant schemes. Recently, we opened a scheme to support thousands of micro-businesses.
This intervention will assist the recovery because businesses can ramp up more quickly when they retain staff. But the recovery may not be as rapid as the decline. As we face this new reality, government, nationally and locally, must support businesses to rebuild.
So how do we go about this? The answer is: step-by-step.
The first step to kick-starting the economy began with construction and manufacturing returning to safe workplaces.
In Northern Ireland, manufacturing and construction activities were permitted under the existing regulations. While some did close as a precaution, many have restarted, having re-viewed their approach to safer working. These are sectors that can adapt to cope with the precautions against Covid-19.
We need to encourage flexibility and home working for businesses in the services sector. Our normal work patterns have changed forever because we have become more accustomed to working remotely, using technology more and transport less. We need to capitalise on this
The next step is a phased return for the retail sector. Many food stores here have adapted. But non-food retail is wide and varied and requires a careful and staged approach to reopening drawing upon experience from elsewhere.
Obviously businesses involved in the night-time economy, or hospitality, will likely be to-wards the end of any roadmap, and will need additional support.
Throughout this process, we are putting in place guidance to help our employers, employees and the self-employed understand how to work safely during the coronavirus pandemic.
This approach is grounded in a set of starting assumptions and guiding principles which are focussed on the health, wellbeing and safety of our people.
However, beyond this, further measures will be required. Some sectors will need further support as will vulnerable but viable businesses. We are looking at how we will support people who become unemployed to retrain, upskill and keep close to the labour market.
My ultimate goal is a strong, competitive and regionally balanced economy with more people working in better jobs in these challenging times.
For our economy to make the best possible recovery, we need to work together. We need buy-in from all sections of society to emerge from lockdown because it is a fine balancing act to reduce economic damage, while keeping Covid-19‘s R-rate under control.
A skilled workforce is at the foundation of recovery. Our schools, FE colleges and universities are having to deliver support to students differently too through virtual and remote learning. My department is determined to all it can to facilitate improving skills.
We have removed the 25% SME employer contribution to Skills Focus to allow furloughed staff to gain accredited qualifications and return to work upskilled. We have launched a post-graduate course in software development with QUB, offering a fully funded part-time course to those impacted by Covid-19. We have also partnered with the Open University to provide free online learning for workers.
Because it has been impossible for our FE and HE students to sit exams in the conventional way, it is vital that arrangements were put in place for them to receive their qualifications and move forward into the workplace. We will need their skills when the time comes.
Investment is essential. The Executive has agreed to match fund £562m for City and Growth deals and £55m for Inclusive Futures Fund. And it will provide up to an additional £100m for complementary projects. Alongside UK funding, this means that a crucial injection of around £1.2bn is available for all regions of Northern Ireland.
My department will play a central role in delivering important new projects in innovation, in the digital economy, in skills and in tourism. This investment is essential as we rebuild, and it will continue to boost our economy over the next decade.
We also need channel the skills and expertise of our business leaders. I have re-established the Economic Advisory Group to provide expert advice on our economic strategy and on recovery. Its role is to help us identify global market opportunities so we can build on our world class reputation in areas such as cyber security, fin-tech and digital start-ups.
Despite the crisis, Northern Ireland is still an attractive proposition in these fields. US firm Cygilant recently announced it was setting up a cyber security hub in Belfast creating 65 new jobs.
I have also established the Tourism Recovery Steering Group to galvanise the energy and expertise within that sector to drive forward the rebuilding of an industry that was hit early and hard by this crisis.
Recovery is not a trade off between people’s health and the economy. The two are inextricably linked and it is important we all recognise that. The road from adversity to recovery will take time and determination but I am confident we will succeed.