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Coronavirus: Reopening of shops has stopped severe job losses in Northern Ireland, insists retail chief

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Simon Hamilton

Simon Hamilton

Simon Hamilton

Severe job losses have been avoided in the retail sector as a result of the decision to reopen shops, a commerce chief has said.

Simon Hamilton said the furlough scheme had been a "godsend", stopping mass unemployment in the short-term.

Mr Hamilton, who is chief executive of the Belfast Chamber, added: "Ninety-five per cent of retailers have been availing of that scheme and putting a very high percentage of staff on that."

He said reopening retail tomorrow had been another boost.

"Having an earlier date to reopen than anticipated has been a huge, huge help in terms of getting going again. Had restrictions stayed in place and retailers remained closed in the summer then chances of quite a high number of job losses would have been quite severe," he said.

Mr Hamilton was addressing the Assembly's economy committee on Wednesday.

He said that retail had been one of the sectors hardest hit by restrictions during lockdown.

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Support: Simon Hamilton

Support: Simon Hamilton

PA

Support: Simon Hamilton

Most retailers with a door opening onto the street are able to trade from tomorrow, but Mr Hamilton said units within shopping centres now required a definite opening date.

He said that in many cases the centres themselves were open, as they housed the "essential" retailers allowed to trade all through the crisis.

He added: "I'm aware of one of our members who has 60% of their shops actually open because they are deemed essential.

"They are well-versed and experienced in how to open safely and keep premises safe and clean and have queuing systems in place."

Mr Hamilton said that while retailers were pleased to be able to reopen, the sector was still entering a "dangerous period" and would require ongoing support from the Government.

He said that to maintain social distancing, shops would have lower footfall, and were also having to absorb the costs of measures such as Perspex screens.

Mr Hamilton said he wanted to offer support to chamber members in the hospitality industry, which is still awaiting a reopening date.

Hotels, restaurants and bars in the Republic are due to reopen on June 29.

The Executive is expected to consider whether to reopen the hospitality sector here when it meets on Thursday. It is also due to consider whether a plan to reopen hotels here on July 20 can be brought forward in tandem with the Republic.

Mr Hamilton said: "There's a real symbiotic relationship between retail, hospitality and tourism. We don't want to see our industries here falling behind our neighbours in the south."

Aodhan Connolly, director of the NI Retail Consortium, also gave evidence to the committee and repeated calls for a date when retailers in shopping centres can get back to business.

He said: "It seems a little bit arbitrary that they're not open, since a lot have gone that extra mile to ensure safety of staff including using personal protective equipment (PPE), social distancing and hand sanitisation.

"We need that final piece of the jigsaw to be opened as soon as possible, or at least a date for it to be opened as soon as possible."

Glyn Roberts, chief executive of Retail NI, warned recovery of the sector could take some time.

"We are making progress but it is a long, long road back," he said. "If we are in the midst of a very serious recession over the next few months, and possibly years, what impact that will have on consumer confidence and spending is a whole other issue."

Belfast Telegraph