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Executive needs to set target dates in coronavirus lockdown plan to keep the public and business focused

Stephen Kelly


Members of the public in Belfast City centre during the outbreak. Credit: Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

Members of the public in Belfast City centre during the outbreak. Credit: Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press E

Stephen Kelly

Stephen Kelly

Members of the public in Belfast City centre during the outbreak. Credit: Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

The Executive's route map outlining their rationale for a staged exit from lockdown is welcome and in many places offers some necessary clarity on how decisions will be made over the coming weeks and months. But it lacks the necessary timetabling.

Business understands the power of targets, of certain actions taking place within pre-determined timelines in order to focus attention and deliver the right results.

But in this public health and economic emergency, why are dates important?

First, there are fundamentally two different types of campaigns - one based on fear or one based on ambition or aspiration.

Clearly the community, our economy, needed the lockdown shock to suddenly shift behaviour. It was absolutely right to fundamentally alter economic life, quickly. The right campaign for the right moment.

But, two months in, there is growing evidence that people are no longer adhering to the advice.

It is not just that people are bored or becoming relaxed - for many the messaging has become like wallpaper… you know it's there but you no longer notice it.

The choice now is do we ignore this behaviour or do we react to it?

The Executive's plan, their clarity on how they will go about making decisions, does help a little to move us towards giving the public some targets to hit. If we can meet these, we will see a reopening of more of what we understand to be more fully-functioning life including community and sporting activities, returning to work and enjoying nice things in life like spending time with family, socialising and shopping.

But if we do not know when these will happen, people will increasingly make their own choices based on their own understanding or assumptions of the risks.

We should be telling them that if we collectively do these things by a specific date, then there is going to be movement.

A target to aim for, ambitions met if we act together. It is time for a fresh message which can resonate with the public but a more positive one which motivates them to help achieve the outcomes we all require.

Secondly, businesses just cannot flick a switch and turn things back on. It takes time and resources to get back functioning.

Speaking to staff so they can be mentally prepared to return to work, placing orders with our suppliers or find new suppliers, planning for cash flow, investing in expensive social distancing protections, turn on their marketing and commit to logistics providers.

Equally, they cannot hold out forever.

They are running out of cash and in some customers are looking elsewhere. Giving firms an indication of when things will move or come back online will provide them with the necessary space to make arrangements.

We just simply cannot wait this out until a vaccine is found.

This virus is not going to disappear in three weeks' time but we should use that period to develop fresh messaging, look at what parts of economic and civic life can be safely brought back and lay out a targeted plan which motivates us all to still play our part.

Telling us what and - equally as importantly - when we can return to activities, will have us collectively focused on taking the right actions.

A little hope can be very effective.

Stephen Kelly is chief executive of Manufacturing NI

Belfast Telegraph