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Social distancing relaxation ‘comes with big responsibilities’

Hospitality Ulster chief Colin Neill said to expect a different experience after reopening from shoulder to shoulder patrons in bars.

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From left, Northern Ireland Economy Minister Diane Dodds alongside restaurant owner Michael Deane and Colin Neill of Hospitality Ulster (Liam McBurney/PA)

From left, Northern Ireland Economy Minister Diane Dodds alongside restaurant owner Michael Deane and Colin Neill of Hospitality Ulster (Liam McBurney/PA)

From left, Northern Ireland Economy Minister Diane Dodds alongside restaurant owner Michael Deane and Colin Neill of Hospitality Ulster (Liam McBurney/PA)

The relaxation of social distancing regulations is a “game changer” to save the hospitality sector, but comes with big responsibilities, it has been warned.

Hospitality Ulster chief Colin Neill was speaking after the Northern Ireland Executive agreed to reduce social distancing from two metres to one metre subject to mitigations.

“This is the most significant news since the announcement we were closed at the beginning of this crisis,” he told the PA news agency.

“It comes with big responsibilities, we know that, but this makes the difference between a sustainable business and a business that would open and go broke or not open at all and it means we can save jobs.

“At one metre, we can do about 70% of turnover which is just about breaking even for most premises, although some won’t be able to open even under this, but two metres, we were at about 30% of turnover, that was just unsustainable.

“This will significantly change the number that can open. We still will see some businesses not open, we will still regrettably see staff lose their jobs but this is the real lifeline, this is the game changer to try and save our industry and those jobs.”

The CBI NI also welcomed the reduction as making a “substantial difference to the viability of thousands of firms here in Northern Ireland”.

Chief executive Angela McGowan said the move will have a “material impact across sectors such as tourism and hospitality who are desperate to get back on their feet”.

Mr Neill cautioned that the experience in the hospitality sector will be different to before the pandemic.

“Don’t picture the shoulder to shoulder pub and the back to back restaurant, it has to be different,” he said.

“That said, we will do all we can to make it that social experience because we sell socialising but we’ll do it in a responsible way to protect the health of our staff and the health of our customers.

“I think there is a whole spectrum of opinion in terms of customers, we have a part of our customer base who are keen to come back right through to another part who are reluctant, and I understand that.

“We’re going to have to work to prove that we can be responsible to let people see what the conditions are, but also too that it is an enjoyable experience when they come because that’s key, that’s part of your night out.”

Meanwhile, Ms McGowan called for planning for economic recovery.

“Planning for sustainable and inclusive economic recovery must now take centre stage,” she said.

“In the coming weeks businesses will be looking for the Northern Ireland Executive to accelerate efforts to protect jobs, livelihoods and future prosperity”.

PA