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Coronavirus: More calls for clarity on 'essential' firms as Ulster Carpets closes

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First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill

First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill

First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill

Northern Ireland's private sector needs clarity on which businesses should be allowed to remain open during the coronavirus outbreak, it's been claimed.

Economist Dr Esmond Birnie said companies needed clear guidance on whether or not they could stay open, after a split had emerged between the views of First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill.

The First Minister has said firms can stay open provided they carry out proper social distancing. But Ms O'Neill has said all non-essential firms should shut, and last week said Ulster Carpets in Portadown should close its doors as its work was not essential.

Yesterday, the company announced it would begin closing down its operations.

But speaking yesterday, First Minister Arlene Foster emphasised a "unity of purpose" in tackling coronavirus.

She said a new forum, made up of statutory bodies, trade unions, the PSNI and chief executives of local councils, would look into which firms could be regarded as essential and report to the Executive.

The Deputy First Minister said there had been a disagreement in the Executive, "not in terms of our joined-up approach in terms of our number one priority, which is about saving lives, but there is certainty a difference emphasis in terms of speed and approach to how we bring forward measures such as testing, PPE, those issues of concern".

In a statement, Ulster Carpets said it had been adhering "rigorously" to all guidelines, including social distancing. But it added: "As a consequence of the deteriorating Covid-19 pandemic situation in Northern Ireland, continuing to follow scientific advice and in line with our company contingency planning, we have decided to initiate a run-down of some elements of our production until further notice. We will activate this plan in an orderly manner within days. Our key priority at all times has been to protect the health of our employees and all those in the community. The Ulster Carpets Group ethos puts the health and wellbeing of its people first.

"Through this reduction process we will ensure all contractually based orders are fulfilled and our sales and support services remain operational to secure future work for our world-class production team."

The group said that the jobs of those affected would be covered by the UK Government Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme Regulations.

Belfast Telegraph