The business community has expressed disappointment that the Health Minister offered no new information on the return to work as he announced the lifting of regulations yesterday.
The advice to work from home is guidance, but Robin Swann only lifted legal requirements yesterday.
The Department of Health (DoH) confirmed that, as of Monday evening, the official advice — which says to work from home where possible — will remain the same, although a spokesperson noted “guidance on issues is being updated”.
They added that the Health Minister’s statement referred to “legal requirements” only, stating that “information on working from home was never in law, it was only ever guidance”. The new information is expected in the coming days.
Glyn Roberts, chief executive at Retail NI, was disappointed that Mr Swann failed to make reference to the issue, believing that no inclusion of “a clear commitment to return to the workplace” meant further lack of clarity for businesses going forward.
“Obviously we can only go by what was in the statement from the minister and we were very clear that this is an important last bit of the jigsaw,” he told the Belfast Telegraph.
“If we’re serious about reopening our economy, we need to have this guidance. I think it’s more than just lifting the guidance. It’s actually having a clear plan to allow our significant public and private sector employers to return their staff.
“Some of the large private sector employers we have been talking to, who have staff that provide significant footfall for our members, are still a bit nervous about moving forward.
“We need clear guidance from the minister which allows them to do that and as we speak, that is not in the statement.”
Retail NI has also suggested a taskforce be set up to “help work through the issues about returning staff to their place of work”.
Simon Hamilton, chief of Belfast Chamber, added that “as workers in other cities return to their offices, NI stands out compared to the rest of the UK”.
“Many employers have made it clear to me that it is impacting negatively on their productivity and competitiveness,” he said.
“We would urge a change in the guidance as quickly as possible and continue on our journey back to normality.”
Chief executive of Londonderry Chamber, Paul Clancy believes that with restrictions now in the rear-view mirror, “it’s crucial that the recovery and rebuild of our economy and our hard-hit businesses become the focus of our Executive, especially after the upcoming Assembly election”.
“The next mandate and new Programme for Government must prioritise the stimulation of our economy once again and help our businesses get back to where they were pre-pandemic,” he commented.
Dr Tom Black, chairman of the British Medical Association’s Northern Ireland Council, welcomed the easing of rules but stressed that precautions should still be put in place for the “many clinically extremely vulnerable people who will be worried” by Mr Swann’s announcement.
While the legal requirement to wear a face covering in public places has been removed, Dr Black said “if you can continue to wear a mask and keep your distance you should do so”.
“As we begin to move away from this peak of infection, we will no doubt return to looking at our long and increasing waiting lists. We cannot go back to how it was before,” he added.