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'Non-essential' shops in NI should reopen in June, says retail chief

Glyn Roberts

Non-essential shops should be permitted to reopen next month as part of the Executive's economic recovery plan, a retail boss has said.

The roadmap to economic recovery published this week said that non-essential retail could reopen as part of step two.

But giving evidence to the Assembly's Economy Committee, Retail NI chief Glyn Roberts said shops could be ready for reopening as early as next month.

The plan unveiled by the First and deputy First Minister on Tuesday refers to step one of the retail plan as covering outdoor retail such as garden centres.

Speaking to the committee, Mr Roberts said: "The plan is progress, but we believe that there needs to be clear and indicative timings and dates in that plan.

"The recovery plan for the Republic has a target date of June for the reopening of non-essential shops - and we believe that is achievable for Northern Ireland, but we will also need appropriate childcare provision."

He said footfall in towns and cities in Northern Ireland had "all but collapsed" during lockdown.

"It is now time for Executive to work on a reopening plan for towns and cities."

He said such measures would mean provisions such as stewarding and cleaning would have to be put in place, and new arrangements made for car parking and public transport.

But he added: "It would start the ball rolling and preparation would now begin for reopening our economy in a safe way."

Aodhan Connolly, NI director of the NI Retail Consortium, said the pandemic had ushered in the worst crisis for the sector in some time.

"Covid-19 is the biggest external factor to affect our business and consumers in generations. Retail has already had significant challenges and a huge change, with more transformation over the last five years than in the previous 50."

And he said that while the perception was that the pandemic had ushered in a boom period for grocers, that had not been the case.

"Sales were up 12% in the first part of March while people stockpiled even though there was really no need. But what they were stocking up on was the lower-profit margin, cheaper goods like cheaper toilet rolls, cheaper proteins and cuts of meat. Then in the second half of the month we had the lowest sales figures since 1995."

The committee also heard evidence on the plight of small businesses from executives in Enterprise NI and InterTradeIreland.

Michael McQuillan, chief executive of Enterprise NI - which represents 28 enterprise agencies around Northern Ireland - said firms should receive grant aid to help them implement changes in the workplace to adhere to social distancing.

Small businesses are having to put in screening to protect staff, as well as providing hand sanitiser and developing one-way systems within their premises, he said. "We think firms should be able to benefit from a grant of say £1,500 or £2,000 to pay for equipment to make your workplace safe."

Also addressing the committee, Aidan Gough, designated officer and director of strategy and policy at cross-border body InterTradeIreland, said the Government would have a part to play in economic recovery as well as in keeping companies going through the crisis.

"Large infrastructure programmes that are being planned should be brought forward as quickly as possible to help stimulate demand within the economy."

Belfast Telegraph