Business groups sound warning as return to full lockdown suggested

Several business groups have warned of the devastating economic impact of a return to lockdown after Northern Ireland’s chief medical and scientific officers suggested such a move might be necessary.

By Niall Deeney
Saturday, 3rd October 2020, 7:30 am
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 2nd October 2020

A general view of Castle Street, Londonderry City Centre. 
New Covid measures which will come into force in Derry City and Strabane District Council from next week and last for at least a fortnight.

Picture by Lorcan Doherty / PressEye
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 2nd October 2020 A general view of Castle Street, Londonderry City Centre. New Covid measures which will come into force in Derry City and Strabane District Council from next week and last for at least a fortnight. Picture by Lorcan Doherty / PressEye

The lockdown warnings came yesterday morning, just hours before it emerged that nearly 1,000 people had tested positive for the virus in a single 24 hour period.

The chief medical and scientific advisors to the Stormont government suggested that a short-term, so-called “circuit breaker” return to strict lockdown restrictions could now be required in the near future.

Chief scientific officer, Professor Ian Young, said during a radio interview yesterday morning that more than one ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown might be needed this winter.

First Minister Arlene Foster said earlier this week that such a step would require support from Westminster for businesses.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson (pictured, inset) said yesterday that he would “absolutely” make that support available to Northern Ireland in its battle with the virus during an interview with BBC NI.

But he said he would like to see the impact of restrictions already in place before making a decision.

“I think we need to see the effect of the measures we’ve taken start to feed through a bit,” he said.

His comments come amid stark warnings from business groups about the potential impact of a return to the stricter lockdown restrictions in place during the first wave of the pandemic.

Manufacturing NI chief executive Stephen Kelly told the News Letter last night that the jobs of as many as 30,000 people in the industry could already be in jeopardy, while Retail NI chief executive Glynn Roberts suggested as many as 100,000 more people could find themselves on the unemployment register this Christmas.

“Clearly, the Executive will need to be supported by the UK exchequer if it’s going to tackle this problem that we have in front of us right now,” Mr Kelly said.

Glynn Roberts said: “I think the Executive has a very fine line to walk in whatever decision they make.

“If we go for a sustained lockdown there will be an impact through businss closures, jobs lost and obviously increased levels of poverty and unemployment — that will have an impact on people’s health.”

Mr Roberts continued: “It’s not really a health versus wealth argument — there are public health implications either way.”

Retail NI was one of eight business organisations to write to the Executive earlier this week, warning of “a considerable number of job losses” and the “devastating economic impact” of a return to full lockdown.

“We were one of several business groups who wrote to the Executive to warn them to be cautious,” Mr Roberts said.

“The Executive needs to be very careful that it doesn’t over-react to this problem, but it may well be that action is required.”

He added: “We have certainly moved from a high street crisis to a high street emergency. I worry greatly that when furlough begins to wind down we may see many jobs lost. Leaving aside the prospect of a secnd lockdown, we could see upwards of 100,000 people on the unemployment register by Christmas.”

Stephen Kelly said: “This is an unenviable and probably impossible position for the Northern Ireland Executive.

“The decisions that they take have consequences — of course from a public health position but with the furlough scheme closing [at the end of October] and with no apparent availability of other financial support, or at best limited financial support, we could be looking at enormous numbers of job losses.

“From a manufacturing perspective, the number of people who have already been made redundant, who are at risk of redundancy, or are onfurlough account for a third of the manufacturing workforce. In pure number terms that’s 30,000 people.”

Roger Pollen, from the Federation of Small Businesses NI, said: “The furlough scheme has not yet ended and we have not seen the scale of the redundancies.

“If we’re getting towards the tail end of the furlough scheme and, far from things getting better, they’re getting worse that might be enough to make people make the decision to say ‘we’re going to have to let people go’.

Those warnings came just days after the Economy Minister, Diane Dodds, said the “small shoots of recovery we are seeing would be destroyed” by a return to lockdown. She added: “Even the fear alone of another lockdown would remove any lingering hopes businesses have of economic recovery.”

But Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride, speaking to the BBC yesterday, said: “I do believe that we need to plan and prepare and look at options around a so-called circuit breaker.”

Chief Scientific Officer, Professor Ian Young, also speaking to the BBC, said: “I think it would be sensible to plan for the possibility of one or more periods of circuit break over the course of this winter.”

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