It has been said that this New Year’s Eve people will stay up until midnight – not to see in 2021, but to make sure 2020 leaves.
It truly has been a year like no other, with some of my more experienced colleagues noting that throughout their many decades of running businesses they have witnessed oil shocks; currency devaluations; civil unrest, but nothing that can compare with the current global pandemic. In the spirit of ‘new year, new start’ let us not look back at the year which has almost passed, and let’s look ahead to what we can expect in 2021.
It is likely that further progress rolling out a vaccine for Covid-19 which enables a return to more normal life, perhaps in the spring or summer of the year. The likely advances in public health can only be positive for the economy, particularly for sectors like hospitality which have borne the brunt of restrictions, but also for businesses generally, with increases in business and consumer confidence.
With the Northern Ireland Protocol coming into force in January, there is a hope that we can put the Brexit saga behind us, which has plagued businesses for more than four years as they have been unsure about what the trading landscape and future market access will look like. That said, there is still a great deal of work to be done to ensure that trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland is as frictionless as possible and that Northern Ireland businesses have unfettered access to the wider UK market in 2021.
In an ideal world, with Covid-19 and Brexit behind us, we can begin to look ahead to the medium and long-term issues and how we can create the best environment for the economy to flourish. With NI having the highest proportion of school leavers in the UK without five good GCSEs including English and Maths, addressing educational achievement should be high on our agenda.
Improving our built and digital infrastructure will also be key, particularly in a world where people are spending more time working from home, and the economic concentration around greater Belfast may lessen somewhat.
Above all, businesses will be forgiven for wanting 2021 to be one of stability, where business stories feature in the middle rather than the front pages of newspapers.
It might seem foolish to make any firm predictions for 2021 but there are a number of emerging global trends that will impact business here. In the recruitment sector for example, despite the dual pressures of Covid-19 and Brexit, there are exciting prospects in growth areas including fintech, cyber-security, pharma, life sciences, agri-food and manufacturing.
The lasting impact of the global pandemic will shape the way we work, but I firmly believe the workplace will continue to be the focal point. A physical space for colleagues to work in is essential to building staff cohesion, a common sense of purpose, as well as good physical and mental health.
This year will see us work with greater flexibility and I envision people and businesses discovering the benefits of working in a new way, which might challenge traditional business norms in the short term, but ultimately will revolutionise and modernise the way we work and live.
Tina McKenzie is FSB NI policy chairperson