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Claire McNeilly - Byline image

Northern Ireland roadmap still has too many empty streets on it

Claire McNeilly


Royal Avenue in Belfast city centre shortly after the lockdown began

Royal Avenue in Belfast city centre shortly after the lockdown began

Royal Avenue in Belfast city centre shortly after the lockdown began

Remember the days when the only thing Northern Ireland retailers had to worry about was consumer spending habits?

And remember when traders in Belfast city centre thought nothing could be worse than the Primark fire?

Now, however, the only thing on their collective minds is whether they'll even get their doors open again.

As far as roadmaps to recovery go, the five-point plan out of lockdown leaves the retail sector with a wonky satnav.

Having no firm dates for exiting coronavirus restrictions apparently gives Northern Ireland some "flexibility" going forward, according to the First and Deputy First Ministers, Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill.

But what it gives shop owners, hairdressers and a myriad of other businesses that have been deemed 'non-essential' during the Covid-19 crisis is a massive headache.

(I mean, who on earth can live for any length of time without a hairdresser or barber? I know I'm struggling with that supposed non-essential…)

No one believes that a drip-feed of dates will deliver the economy from its current financial travails, and you'd be hard-pushed to find responsible traders willing to compromise on health and safety.

But how can retailers plan for the future when there's nothing but a question mark hanging over five so-called "phases" of a recovery strategy, of which, hmmm, only four apply to retail?

Step one means large outdoor retailers, like garden centres, can reopen but we don't know when that starts.

We do know, however, that associated cafes and restaurants can only be takeaway. Non-food retailers can open during step two with limited numbers of customers to allow for social distancing - hurrah for anyone who needs some new clothes (or shoes, Alex Easton).

There's nothing for retail to see in step three, apparently, but in step four we can say hello to our old friends, the aforementioned hairdressers and fitness studios, subject to restrictions and after risk assessments.

Meanwhile, step five allows cafes, pubs and restaurants to throw open their doors again.

Retailers are flabbergasted by the lack of dates provided by the Executive for when particular steps will be taken, unlike the Republic of Ireland.

What about retailers who operate on both sides of the border, for instance?

One exasperated trader told me: "I have shops in Northern Ireland and Ireland - I want to be able to finalise a business plan, not take a piecemeal approach to future operations."

Elsewhere, a barber said: "I now know my salon can open in step four but I can't tell my staff if that'll be August or September. It's not good enough."

We're told it's all about bringing the R number down so that we're heading in the right direction.

Let's hope we're not pushing the R sector off a cliff.

Belfast Telegraph