Mourne Seafood says the ‘virus is closing us’ as ministers meet to consider raft of restrictions
One of Belfast’s best known restaurants shut its doors until the new year yesterday, telling customers “the virus is closing us”.
Mourne Seafood in the city centre announced its temporary closure as Stormont ministers prepared for a key Executive meeting on fresh measures to tackle an expected surge in cases linked to the highly transmissible Omicron strain.
Closing nightclubs, other restrictions on hospitality and limits on household mixing will be on the table today when the Executive decides its response to the escalating Covid crisis.
Health Minister Robin Swann said there would be “additional asks” of the public.
While no shutdown of sectors of the economy or society is expected, the Executive could move to close nightclubs again, as at the beginning of the crisis.
The rest of the hospitality sector could see the reintroduction of restrictions designed to reduce mixing, such as the rule of six on table numbers and table service only.
Other options believed to be under consideration include:
• Bolstered mitigations for the retail sector, including capacity restrictions, one-way systems and screening;
• Social distancing measures for office working, with new workforce Covid testing procedures potentially introduced;
• Fresh guidance on limiting mixing in domestic settings.
Ministers will also deliberate on how to spend the extra £100m of Treasury funding allocated to the Executive to support efforts to combat the new variant.
Three more virus-linked deaths were announced in Northern Ireland yesterday, with another 2,096 cases recorded.
Health Minister Mr Swann said he could not pre-empt any Executive announcements.
But he added: “We’ve always been clear we can’t just boost ourselves out of the Omicron threat and what’s in front of us.
“There will be additional asks, and the level of those will be decided and announced by the Executive.”
Bar and restaurant owners expect to be hit hardest by any restrictions but are already suffering badly as the public stays at home after being urged to take greater precautions.
One industry leader warned the “mixed messaging” from Stormont would see his sector lose up to £300m in takings this Christmas. Colin Neill of Hospitality Ulster said the situation would “obliterate livelihoods” and called on the Executive to bring forward an urgent compensation package.
Mourne Seafood blamed the current situation as the reason for its temporary closure, but it also hit out at what it called “silence” from the Executive, saying: “The virus is closing us.”
Eugene Kelly, of The Slemish bar in Ballymena, said financial support was needed.
“It’s not looking good for us. My trade was down roughly 20% to 30% last week alone and it’s not looking so good this week either,” he added.
“I don’t know what the Government’s going to do because if they close us down, they’re going to have to pay us. We just wouldn’t be able to survive otherwise. We just can’t afford to be closed down without money coming from somewhere.”
Mr Kelly said he believed crowds were staying away of their own accord to protect themselves.
“I think we’re going to lose the trade this year. This is usually when we’re trying to make more money because of the quiet times in January and February. I just don’t know how it’s going to pan out,” he said.
Stephen Reynolds, owner of The Front Page in Ballymena, has been trading for 31 years and called the situation “abysmal”.
“At least last year when they closed us we were getting grants, but we’re all but closed this time,” he said. “They put out the message telling people not to socialise or go out. We’re seeing a massive backdraft compared to 2019. Hospitality is in total freefall.
“It’s just that lack of certainty. There’s no certainty around what stock we need. We’re not a food pub, but I can appreciate the restaurants and hotels must be finding it extremely difficult.”
Looking ahead to the crunch Stormont meeting, Mr Reynolds said: “This is the usual thing. They make all sorts of noises and it’s only on the last minute that they decide anything.
“Quite honestly, I would rather be closed than go down to the reduced hours we’re seeing in the Republic of Ireland because that’s a bit of a shambles as well.”