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The final step in getting Northern Ireland back to business

It’s almost 12 months since lockdown became a familiar addition to the lexicon. But as we approach the end of what everyone hopes will be the last major phase of economic restrictions and the roll-out of the vaccinations continues at pace, John Mulgrew looks back, and ahead, as to what’s needed to get us fully back to business


Belfast city centre on a business Christmas weekend in 2018

Belfast city centre on a business Christmas weekend in 2018

Belfast city centre on a business Christmas weekend in 2018

Little did we know that a year ago we’d only now be formally discussing a long-term plan for the final push to reopening our economy, fully, once again.

For us, and for many others out there, the days and weeks that followed March 23 proved some of the most difficult and challenging – a pandemic spiralling out of control, an economy in shutdown and insufficient knowledge or understanding of how to deal with a crisis, from both a health, and societal perspective.

The health crisis became front-and-centre, as it should have, and a roadmap was set out a regional and national level to plan reopening and readjusting.

It was still largely guess work for many businesses and policy-makers. How best to ‘Covid proof’ a place of work, provide a safe working environment for staff, adjust to changing consumer demands and pivot operations in order to stay afloat.

With the initial hit of Covid and lockdown, there was a huge spike in job cuts across Northern Ireland and beyond. That was then cushioned, somewhat, with the announcement of the furlough system and various Government-backed business loans, and other assistance, to allow companies which were struggling, to continue.

For many businesses, they were able to, and have adapted well and are carrying on as they were pre-pandemic. For the customer-facing sectors, such as hospitality sector and parts of retail, the challenge has been a greater one.

And as cases fell considerably, we reopened when we could. You only have to look at the huge surge in economic output during the third quarter of 2020 to see how much of a difference being allowed back into the wild was having on boosting business and getting people spending once again.

A subsequent restriction on a raft of areas – such as hospitality – then followed, a short window opening for a fortnight in the run-up to Christmas, and now, what we all hope, will be the last lockdown in our journey to mass vaccination and all-but eliminating Covid altogether.

And as we look towards April 1 as a milestone in that journey of getting back to some level of societal and economic normality, now is the time to set out – firmly – how we do so.

The CBI here sets out six main areas to focus on – writing to the Executive a few weeks back. That included confirming what will be considered low, medium or high-risk economic activity and identifying and understanding the conditions that need to be met before rolling back certain restrictions.

It also says outlining how the vaccine will be deployed once the most vulnerable groups are inoculated and examining how “regular mass rapid testing in the community and workplaces could allow a wider, speedier reopening of the economy”.

And lastly, it says “creating bespoke, detailed plans for the harder to open sectors of the economy” remains a crucial element of a successful reopening of the wider economy here.

Retail NI’s Glyn Roberts has also called for a high street reopening roadmap to be produced. Fingers are crossed that it’s something which is dealt with by the Executive between me writing this and it appearing on your desk.

“Covid marshalls, public hand sanitisers and business compliance scoring with the regulations all need to be in place for the reopening of non-essential retail to reassure shoppers and to limit transmission,” he said.

Meanwhile, Hospitality Ulster’s Colin Neill has called on the powers that be to “develop the parameters by which the hospitality sector can reopen, so that plans can be shaped well in advance of actual reopening”.

It’s a sector which, even when elements were partially opened, has not been anywhere close to being back to any form of normality at any stage of this pandemic.

“Both the industry and government now need to learn lessons from past restrictions, what worked, and what didn’t,” he said.

“We also need a new approach; reversing the previous reopening strategy, from; who can open – here are the rules, to; here are the rules and those that can comply can open, whilst providing financial support for those that cannot operate sustainably under the rules.

“Simply choosing a business type as criteria to open and removing financial support rather than a risk assessed approach can actually be counterproductive, pushing a business to open even though it can’t be compliant.

“Let’s be proactive, let’s get a plan in place well in advance and fight back and accelerate the recovery. We have already been through the wringer prior to previous lockdowns and have developed a significant level of experience in relation to safety measures and understanding restrictions and how to implement them.”

We’ve had that cushion of support for almost a year now, and it must continue until we return to at a large proportion of a normalised business and economic environment, while we will still see greater levels of job losses ahead.

As Tony Danker, the new head of the CBI, told me in this edition of the magazine – the cost of losing businesses now, when we are this close, will be far less than having to build back from the ground up.

“This is like us building a bridge from one side of a river to the other, and stopping at the three-quarter point. You have to finish the job.”

Ulster Business