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What will Northern Ireland be like after coronavirus lockdown?


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A lone cyclist in Belfast

A lone cyclist in Belfast

A lone cyclist in Belfast

Reporters Lisa Smyth, Linda Stewart and John Mulgrew on the radical changes we can expect in every aspect of our lives when we finally get back to normality.

The health service: ‘Sustainability requires change’

By Lisa Smyth

There isn't a part of daily life that hasn't been affected by the global spread of coronavirus, but the health service is obviously bearing the brunt of the pandemic.

As the NHS braced for the greatest challenge in its 71-year history, the service was radically overhauled to allow it to respond to a surge in critically ill patients.

So, what is the health service going to look like after this is all over?

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NHS doctors working on the front line

NHS doctors working on the front line

AFP via Getty Images

NHS doctors working on the front line

Firstly, it is more than likely that coronavirus is here to stay, which means that until there is an effective vaccine in place the NHS will have to remain on high alert, capable of responding to a large number of critically ill patients.

However, even once coronavirus is eventually brought under control it is difficult to predict the lasting effects on the health service.

Perhaps most importantly, the health service will have to deal with the many people whose operations have been cancelled, the patients whose non-Covid conditions have worsened while services have been suspended, and the very likely explosion in mental ill-health.

One thing that is clear is that sweeping changes to the way the NHS operates can be achieved in a very short space of time. While years of successive reports have argued the need for change to build a sustainable NHS, very few meaningful changes have been made.

However, within a matter of weeks hospital units have been closed, services restructured and staff redeployed to where they are needed most.

Consultants are seeing their patients in the community and outpatient appointments are being done over the phone - this in particular is recognised as a much more efficient use of resources.

In future, where a face to face consultation isn't necessary, it is likely that hospital consultations will be done remotely, saving patients from travelling to hospital for what is frequently a five-minute appointment.

And what about the restructured services?

Health Minister Robin Swann refused to give a commitment that services and units that have been closed will reopen once the coronavirus crisis has passed.

While that brought little comfort to communities in the likes of Newry, where the emergency department at Daisy Hill Hospital has been temporarily closed, the fact is Northern Ireland has too many acute hospitals and too many A&Es.

It may be unpopular, but perhaps Mr Swann will use the response to coronavirus as an opportunity to push through some of the more controversial proposals to build a safe and sustainable NHS.

For if there is a lesson to be learned from the horror of this pandemic, it is just how crucial the health service is to society.

Just a matter of weeks ago NHS employees stood on picket lines campaigning for better pay, better conditions and an increase in staff to improve patient safety.

It is fair to say that the health service here has been on its knees for a number of years and staff have had to respond from a very fragile position.

Now more than ever it is essential that we build more resilience into the system.

The economy: ‘More collapses, fewer jobs and higher taxes’

By Dr Esmond Birnie

A lockdown lasting "only" three months could lead to a decline of about 10% in the size of the local economy. The main explanations will be a collapse in household spending on non-essentials alongside lower investment.

Regarding jobs, the really optimistic view has been expressed by, amongst others, the American economist Larry Summers that it will be like the economy restarting on Monday morning after the weekend - everything goes back to normal almost immediately. Unfortunately, that is rather unlikely.

UK-wide forecasts suggest the unemployment rate could more than double over the course of this summer and post-crisis the rate is unlikely to return to the close to so-called full employment levels enjoyed in early 2020.

Some scarring or permanent effects are likely at both the individual and economy-wide levels. Some businesses will have collapsed, some will have got used to operating with fewer staff, and some will have switched to digital platforms.

Where Government can help is in assisting people to retrain and reskill for what could be a very different world of work.

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It could be some time before roads are busy again and the economy gets back up and running

It could be some time before roads are busy again and the economy gets back up and running

It could be some time before roads are busy again and the economy gets back up and running

Given increased nervousness it is unlikely investment will recover to pre-Covid-19 levels. Reduced willingness to travel and the contraction of supply chains imply that already low rates of productivity growth could be reduced still further.

First we have seen a mammoth growth in public spending, but later on austerity may return. Having beaten Labour in the 2019 general election the Conservatives now preside over a growth in the government deficit towards £200bn alongside the likely quasi-nationalisation of some of the former commanding heights of business (airlines and railways).

Within about a year expect a difficult debate about tax rises at the UK level income tax and here in terms of rates and water charges. The UK's Second World War borrowing was followed by decades of relatively high inflation. If that is a picture of what the 2020s and 2030s will look like it won't be a great time to be a saver or an investor in Government bonds. It might have been hoped that the crisis would produce the sense of common purpose in the Executive that has been lacking since 2007 or 1998. So far the evidence is mixed. North-South co-operation has also sometimes been lacking and the responsibility for that has sometimes been as much in Dublin as in Belfast.

Perhaps because of caution produced by the 2008-2009 banking crisis the banks moved quite slowly to apply the Government loan guarantee scheme. The balance sheets of institutions ranging from newspapers to universities were severely tested by the crisis and some may not survive into the 2020s.

Dr Esmond Birnie is a senior economist at Ulster University

Property market: ‘No boom, therefore no crash’

By John Mulgrew

There may be no immediate change to Northern Ireland's housing market while online interest in properties has surged amid coronavirus lockdown, it's been claimed.

While the residential market here has effectively been placed on hiatus, and no property deals can transact, John Minnis of John Minnis Estate Agents says although we can't predict the future, that the housing market will effectively start from where it left off.

Mr Minnis also said that there has been a sharp spike in online queries and traffic amid lockdown.

"No properties can transact, and until the Government presses play on the property market, we don't really have a market," he said.

"(This is a) health pandemic, not led by financial market or property - it's only a pause. You can't buy property at the minute."

He said when people get back to the market, prices are likely to start where they were before the crisis began.

"The market will need time. People are phoning me every day looking to view houses. There has been a spike in the analytics, and the interest in people logging on has gone through the roof while we are in lockdown."

Mr Minnis says there may be new demands from consumers, such as families with young children looking at buying a bigger house, while older people may look towards downsizing and buying a property with less upkeep.

"For all those reasons, it remains the same. That's the difference. There hasn't been a property boom so there won't be a property crash.

"I don't think we have lost any ground or gained, so we won't see that prices will have fluctuated up or down."

And turning to the commercial sector, which includes everything from offices to hotels, retail and hospitality, Richard McCaig, associate director at Osborne King, said: "In the commercial sector the majority of occupiers have faced significant challenges, in general the retail and leisure sectors have seen the greatest impact.

"Fortunately the use of technology has allowed businesses across various sectors to function and adapt their offering. The use of online ordering and delivery has now become even more important to smaller businesses and we may see increased demand for more industrial/business space to accommodate these changes rather than the more traditional shop space.

"The crisis has undoubtedly accelerated the demise of many high street occupiers who were already on shaky ground. The need to reshape and repurpose the traditional high street will come into focus more than ever.

"It is likely that the enforced changes to working patterns will have a lasting impact on the office sector and how businesses utilise space."

Retail: ‘It may mean end of office as we know it’

By John Mulgrew

With the majority of employees now working from home, Covid-19 is "likely to change the way corporates approach office space".

But while coffee shop culture may have temporarily become a thing of the past amid UK-wide lockdown, Glyn Roberts, chief executive of Retail NI, says the retail sector can provide a much-needed tonic for weeks and months of being unable to leave our homes.

Glyn Roberts

"For our retail sector to reclaim customers who have become so used to online, the post-crisis solution is to create 21st century high streets that are fun, family-friendly and provide an experience for the lockdown weary consumer that they cant get online," he said.

"Our economy and the way we do business will be in a very different place when this crisis ends.

"With conference calling and Zoom becoming the normal way of working during this crisis, it may well have an impact in the future on business travel and lead to increased demand for more home working, post-crisis.

"When the lockdown begins to lift, will we see the same consumer demand for online retail, home delivery of food and other essential products? Have consumers gotten used to this way of shopping?

"How will this have an impact on an already rapidly changing high street?

"These are all big questions that pose huge challenges to our retail and hospitality sectors in the future.

"However, with innovation and embracing change, I am confident that we adapt to the post-coronavirus world."

And while many modern businesses have been moving towards offering more flexible working, including from home, that could be expedited amid the coronavirus crisis.

Nial Borthistle, business development manager at Glandore, which provides high-end flexible workspace and serviced offices in Belfast and throughout Ireland, says that the situation is "likely to change the way corporates approach office space".

But he added: "A lot of companies have already been looking at more flexible office models for a while now. If they weren't considering a more flexible approach before, the global pandemic has certainly pushed the question to the forefront of any long lease holder's mind.

"I think it will be an opportunity for global companies to reassess their real estate portfolios. Having been able to facilitate working remotely during the pandemic, businesses may decide they don't need such a huge overhead.

"A flexible office space, like Glandore, can accommodate a workforce that is perhaps more accustomed to 'working at home' by allowing our members to change desk numbers and agree shorter-term leasing arrangements."

The environment: ‘Shift to active travel a real plus’

By Linda Stewart

Lockdown is already transforming our environment, with Defra reporting air pollution had dropped by a quarter in Belfast by the end of March alone.

Sustrans says the drop in air pollution has huge benefits for health and the environment, with air pollution linked to an estimated 40,000 UK deaths per year.

Spokesperson Anne Madden says the lockdown could change the way we travel.

Anne Madden

"If there is a silver lining to be had from the dire circumstances of this pandemic, it would be reducing our dependence on cars. Lots more people are following public health guidelines and are walking and cycling in their local areas," she said.

"Our hope is that this will lead to a long-term modal shift towards active travel, but the Government has a vital role to play in this.

"Cities around the world are reallocating road space to pedestrians and cyclists to ensure safe social distancing. The Northern Ireland Assembly needs to step up and follow this example.

"So many people are realising how much more pleasant our urban areas are with less traffic and how much space we give to cars.

"By enabling more people to walk and cycle for everyday journeys, we will improve the environment for everyone and reduce greenhouse gas emissions causing climate breakdown, which is the other looming crisis that hasn't gone away."

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A goldfinch in a garden

A goldfinch in a garden

A goldfinch in a garden

Meanwhile, social media has been rife with wildlife reports, probably because people are noticing nature more, the RSPB says.

RSPB NI head of species Anne-Marie McDevitt said: "The lockdown is potentially having benefits. For example, with councils not mowing grassy areas and spraying what are considered weeds, there will be an increase in flowering plants that then go on to provide pollen and nectar sources for bees, butterflies and other insects."

But the RSPB also warns of potential threats to the environment from lockdown, with people doing things they shouldn't, such as illegal burning.

Anne-Marie says it's difficult to predict what happens afterwards, but added: "We might see an increase in species this season as a result of the lockdown, more birds breeding due to lack of disturbance etc. We hope to see people keeping up the positive things they have been doing.

"We will be working to keep people connected during this period and helping them to retain and build on good things they have been doing for wildlife and each other, so that these become part of the new normal."

The church: ‘Tech-based ministry to grow’

By Lisa Smyth

Churches have adapted quickly to social distancing, delivering a wide range of remote broadcasts, according to Simon Lee, lecturer in religious studies at Belfast Met.

"In some ways the lockdown has shone a light on the vital community support work that has quietly been going on for years across the country," he said.

"When it came to mobilising the collection and distribution of food for those self-isolating or shielding for example, churches and faith groups were amongst the first on the ground, having the structures and volunteers already in place to respond."

However, he says he does not expect to see remote broadcasts replacing weekly gatherings at a place of worship once lockdown is over, as they are no substitute for the more meaningful connection and social interaction that people experience in church and the warm conversations over coffee.

"Now that we have all had to become accustomed to using social media platforms and communication technologies to communicate with each other, I think there is a feeling out there that we have been perhaps missing a trick in terms of time and resources in travelling from various locations to one place to have meetings or plan activities that we could all with much less time and effort do via apps like Zoom or Skype," Dr Lee said.

"There is also a lot of potential in terms of pastoral care to more frequently 'check in' with vulnerable members of the church community where travel time would have made this impossible."

Mr Lee says there could well be a long-term impact on community support.

"Pastoral care will always need face to face contact, but this will no doubt be augmented with communication technology support as a much more efficient way to manage larger congregations, particularly in rural areas where travel from home to home can be extremely time consuming."

Fr Martin Magill, parish priest at St John The Evangelist in Belfast, says he hopes to continue using online facilities to keep in contact with his flock, possibly once a week - for example, the new Good Afternoon St John's Zoom meeting with parishioners.

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Fr Martin Magill

Fr Martin Magill

Fr Martin Magill

"I'm probably getting to know parishioners in a different way and that has been useful," he says.

Rev David Campton, superintendent of the Methodist circuit of south and central Belfast, says remote meetings may be useful for the rural circuits, saving on time and fuel, and he hopes the reinforced support network in the church will continue.

Belfast Telegraph