The ex-DUP minister, now Belfast Chamber head, tells Margaret Canning the mood is ‘worried, weary and wary’ over the pandemic, and admits he’s very happy to be out of Stormont
They’re “worried, weary and wary” is how Belfast Chamber of Commerce boss Simon Hamilton describes the mood of traders in the city centre at the minute.
The former DUP minister led three departments — Health, Finance and Economy — but says he’s glad to be out of Stormont, and that governing Northern Ireland can be “incredibly difficult”.
In his role, he is exercised by the Executive’s decision-making process and what he says was a moving of the goalposts on vaccine passport-checking for hospitality.
Referencing the circumstances of racing driver Max Verstappen’s victory in the championship on Sunday, he described it as: “A last minute rule change that the authorities in Formula 1 would be embarrassed by.”
Department of Health regulations were adjusted close to the end of a two-week implementation period to require checking of digital Covid certs and other documents at the point of entry, instead of as soon as reasonably possible after entry.
Mr Hamilton says he has great admiration for the work ministers have been doing over the pandemic, but doesn’t hold back when it comes to the manner of the change.
“The way in which this has been implemented has been incredibly poor,” he said.
“To make an announcement and say there would be a phasing-in period, and then virtually at the eleventh hour of that period to change quite substantially how it would be implemented — from as quickly as reasonably practicable to ‘at the point of entry’ at the very last minute — is incredibly poor.”
He says the change means a pub or restaurant has to have someone on the door checking punters’ Covid status at a time of staff shortages and rising costs.
“It might be easier to draft, it might be easier in theory for police to enforce, but it’s a heck of a change for business to make. That becomes a job, but there’s no compensation, and that person is not doing something to bring in revenue — it’s just a cost,” he argued.
“That’s a shameful and embarrassing U-turn that reminds me of the grand prix on Sunday, although to arbitrarily change the rules at the last minute there did create something very exciting.”
The Department of Health said: “The regulations were amended on Thursday afternoon, and the guidance was uploaded with revised language on Friday morning.
“Hospitality sector representatives were briefed on the changes on Friday morning.”
Traders are also worried about the prospect of further restrictions in the new year.
Festive joy is in short supply, Mr Hamilton added.
“Usually at this time of year you’re looking to a new year, to turn the page and be full of hope, and I just think a lot of businesses in those customer-facing sectors are coming into 2022 and genuinely not knowing what they’re going to face, and that makes it difficult to plan... confidence is ebbing.
“There is a great degree of worry out there. They’re worried, they’re weary and they’re wary about what the future might hold. They’ve been through a heck of a lot and it’s been a roller-coaster ride for them and many of them are finding it very, very difficult.”
He says speculation about future restrictions from ministers and advisers can have an immediate impact on the mood in the city centre, leading to cancellations.
Mr Hamilton doesn’t refer specifically to Chief Medical Officer Michael McBride, who last month said restrictions in “certain environments and sectors” may be considered in the run-up to the festive season.
He said: “There’s a lot of what I would consider to be damaging speculation around what may or may not come in.
“The Executive must take decisions on the basis of what evidence it has, and it hasn’t been hugely helpful that there’s been a wide amount of speculation about what may be required now or in the future.
“That has definitely impacted on trade and has definitely impacted on business confidence, and I don’t think sometimes there’s an appreciation of how weary business owners are and their staff whenever they hear that we may go through another period of restrictions.
“It contrasts with the mood coming into the summer and early autumn when there were still difficulties, but there was a sense of optimism.
“Unless there is a significant amount of additional support coming from the Treasury, I don’t think the Executive has the capacity to properly compensate businesses.
“This is a very careful balancing act for the Executive to take and I don’t think that they have the freedom to go much further in terms of what they are doing.
“It would be grossly unfair if they were to go much further (with restrictions) without compensating business for the inevitable damage to trading it would do.”
He says the £145m Shop Local scheme has been a welcome boost to the city centre and that the Chamber had championed the idea over a long period.
But he acknowledges it has had some flaws, including its continued rollout over Christmas when much retail spending would have been taking place anyway.
“I think that’s something we’re always looking for, things to be absolutely bang-on perfect,” he said.
“But I think with the scale of the scheme it was always going to pose some difficulties in its implementation, and I do think those difficulties have in the grand scheme been quite small in the overall numbers.”
The Chamber doesn’t yet know the level of cancellations of Christmas parties at Belfast venues over the last few weeks since the new Omicron variant was discovered and the prospects of new restrictions were raised.
“Any conversation with hospitality, leisure or events tells me that it’s quite painful at the minute. At a time we thought we were moving to a better space, it’s unfortunately very reminiscent of some of the other periods, like this time last year or other times in the pandemic, where we’ve had very difficult conversations with people who are wondering what the heck they’re going to do,” he added.
Asked if he regrets being away from the challenges of running a Stormont department during Covid-19, he jokes: “Do you watch the news? I do, I read your newspaper and others, and I don’t miss it and I’m glad I am where I am.
“I don’t look at anybody who is doing some of the jobs that I used to do and have anything other than a huge degree of admiration for them. I was in different challenging posts in different periods and there’s always perpetual crisis in Stormont of one kind or another.
“It is incredibly difficult to govern in this place and I can only imagine how much more difficult it is to do it at the moment. I look at them and wish them well. I wish them luck or whatever, but I am only glad I am not one of them.”
He says a return to politics, perhaps even for a different party, isn’t on the cards.
“It sounds like I’m not closing the door or ruling anything out, but one thing that life has taught me, and I’m old enough now to start making mental notes about lessons, you never rule anything out as you don’t know where life is going to go,” he said.
“But that is a phase of my life that I feel is done. To say I thoroughly enjoyed it suggests that I enjoyed every single second, but I really did enjoy that period. It was an immense privilege to serve in those three departments — but I don’t see that as something I would want to do again.”