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Reopening: It’s now time for some long-term thinking for Northern Ireland

Glyn Roberts

Winston Churchill aptly described his six-volume account of the First World War as ‘The World Crisis’ and several months into the Covid-19 pandemic, it is still unbelievable that we are dealing with our own ‘world crisis’ which is affecting lives and livelihoods in every part of the planet in the 21st century. It has been said many times, but the world will never be the same again, especially for the economy.

Given the rapidly changing nature of the Covid-19 crisis, it has been a challenge for all levels of government to provide effective policy responses that will support our economy throughout these awful times.

While Retail NI welcomes the NI Executive’s initiatives such as the Small Businesses Grants, 12 months’ rate relief and the five stage plan, we believe it is now time to make greater progress on rebooting and reopening our economy.

The reality is that until a vaccine is produced, we will have to find creative ways to safely work around this virus and ensure that we have an economy which provides jobs and investment for Northern Ireland. Recent unemployment figures show an economy which is in real danger of freefall unless action is taken, and the blunt reality is that high levels of poverty will only exacerbate the mental and physical health problems within our communities.

In our discussions with Executive ministers, Retail NI has outlined the need for an intensive one-year recovery plan and stimulus package to address the immediate challenges facing our local economy. We also need to give some thought on what a longer-term economic plan would look like.

Before this crisis, Retail NI as part of Trade NI, published its Vision 2030 plan, setting out how to create 65,000 new jobs and transform Northern Ireland’s economy into an eco-system of innovation. Our plan is even more relevant now than before.

Since the beginning of this crisis, footfall and trade in town and city centres has all but collapsed causing huge damage

The NI Executive needs to begin work on a reopening plan for our town and city centres, which will ensure the right health and safety guidance for retailers, key businesses in town centres, their employees and also consumers.

The Dublin City Centre BID and the UK High Streets Task Force have both published some key recommendations on what this would look like in terms of social distancing, deep cleaning, signposting, stewarding and public transport.

We also want to see a target date in June set for the reopening of the rest of our retail sector, in line with the plan announced for England by the Prime Minister, of course predicated on the medical evidence.

The retailers who are currently on the ‘closed’ list will need time to consult and train staff, produce a social distancing plan and retrofit their stores to ensure the safety of shoppers and shop staff.

Further help for independent retailers is also needed to support them in the move towards reopening and planning for the future such as the Small Business Grants being extended for multi-site independent retailers.

Our retail sector will play a key role in the economic recovery of Northern Ireland and will provide employment and investment in the challenging times ahead and we need to learn lessons from these past few months and make sure that our high streets can not only recuperate, but are ready for the challenges of the 21st century.

Ulster Business