Hospitality and business chiefs have warned the Executive that the new six-week lockdown could cause more than economic damage - with employer and employee mental health at risk.
And Newry Chamber’s executive officer for commerce and trade, Colm Shannon, said it must be the last lockdown businesses face.
It comes as bars, restaurants and hotels as well as non-essential retail will be forced to close from Boxing Day for six weeks.
Mr Shannon said: “The Executive’s decision is devastating news for the many retailers, hospitality businesses and their suppliers who have been struggling to survive. Many businesses were focused on surviving to the end of the year. Now there will be real questions over their future. Job losses will undoubtedly follow the decision to introduce a six-week lockdown.
“This must be the last lockdown, and everyone needs to work hard on minimising unnecessary contacts. With hospitality and most retail closed, the focus is now on households abiding by the rules. The business community wants to see firm action against those flouting the rules.
He added: “As a business community we have real concerns about the mental health and wellbeing of business owners and their employees. Many business owners will worry about whether they will have a business to open at the end of January and employees are concerned about whether they have jobs to return to. It is important that the issue of mental health and wellbeing is not overlooked in the coming weeks and support is provided to help businesses and their employees cope with the added pressures they face.”
Former cafe owner and coffee roaster Simon Johnston of Root and Branch, sold his two former cafes after the first lockdown.
He said: “We closed in March and were one of the first to do so then a couple of months later we re-opened for takeaways but I could see what was coming down the line and sold both businesses; the one on the Ormeau Road and the other in Ormeau Baths.
“I knew it wasn’t going to end well and the finance being given out would dry up so it was a bit of a fire sale. While one of our businesses was profitable during lockdown, the other was haemorrhaging money because you’re still paying services, insurance and the fridges the freezers are still running and it was a good call to sell. I’m completely gutted for so many of my friends in hospitality.”
Mr Johnston currently operates a roastery on the Newtownards Road. He slammed the Executive for its decision, adding: “Frankly, I can’t quite believe that such havoc and catastrophic damage is being meted out on societies totally unnecessarily. Yesterday I had two female business owners crying in my office with the impending news of lockdown because they weren’t sure how they’d make it to February and be able to pay their mortgages and support their children.
“We need to shield the vulnerable and let everyone else get on with it. This lockdown is going to cause mental health harm, economic harm and it will have a knock-on impact on people’s own wellbeing.”
Belfast Chamber chief, Simon Hamilton, said the lockdown reflected “the Executive’s inability to chart a different course with businesses and jobs the collateral damage.”
He said: “Knowing that closing many businesses did not impact on infection rates as hoped for previously, the Executive have once again decided to use more or less the same tactic. Do they expect a different result this time?”
Many hotels which will have received bookings for the period between Christmas and New Year will begin an arduous cancellation process. Janice Gault, chief executive of the NI Hotel Federation said while consumer confidence was ebbing recently, bookings for the period were healthy.
“Bookings between Christmas and New Year were relatively healthy and given that a 10.30 pm curfew was in place for New Year, levels of trading were reasonable.
“Over the coming weeks, the industry would like to see an efficient, well-managed lockdown which would allow the economy to reopen in a less restricted, orderly and sustainable manner. The current stop, start measures have not worked and hoteliers feel that a tighter regime may bring about a quicker recovery. This, coupled with a vaccine, will hopefully allow us to trade in a more sustainable manner in 2021.”
Bishop’s Gate Hotel managing director Ciaran O’Neill says this lockdown will be survival of the fittest for many in the trade. He said: “In the cold light of day, the realisation of what we are dealing with really hits home as we work through the cancellation of bookings, not to mention speaking to brides who have had their wedding plans ruined. We find ourselves in a very difficult position.
“The period between Christmas and New Year is critical for our industry and this has been taken away. For many this will be the difference between breaking even for December or losing more money by opening in December than if they had remained closed.
“Businesses in Northern Ireland are paying the price for an NHS which has been underfunded and under resourced for years. We all appreciate the difficult decisions that have to be made by our politicians but we should not find ourselves in this precarious position.
“The last 10 weeks of lockdown were a nonsense in the Derry City and Strabane District Council area with the majority of people going about normal life. Our industry was closed and this made very little impact to Northern Ireland’s R-rate - or reproduction number.
“Local Government must realise that many businesses are running on fumes and cannot continue with this Start Stop and Go approach. The hospitality industry can no longer withstand repeated closure and reopening under unsustainable restrictions.”