Let us remember the pandemic so we are not condemned to repeat it

Following the easements that came into force yesterday, Northern Ireland has taken another big stride out of lockdown.

Tuesday, 25th May 2021, 1:00 pm
FSB Policy Chair, Tina McKenzie

Following the easements that came into force yesterday, Northern Ireland has taken another big stride out of lockdown.

Indoor hospitality, including traditional non-food pubs, which have been the most restricted sector throughout, are now able to re-open along with attractions, such as cinemas, bowling alleys and museums. For concerts, theatres and live events their doors remain closed for a little longer, with an indicative date of 21 June set for their re-opening. The freedom to go out for a meal or to watch a film - something of which we have been deprived for so much of the last year - will certainly be cherished. Credit must go to the business owners who, often at great detriment to themselves, played their part in implementing regulations and guidance; making major sacrifices to do the right thing by society and get us to where we are today. While this week is certainly one for celebration, with case numbers the lowest in ten months and the vaccine being rolled out to the under 30s, concern regarding the Indian variant should rightly make sure we keep our guard up. It would be a mistake to think that things are completely back to normal for businesses, as necessary mitigations are still in place, such the requirement to have a minimum of one metre social distance, all of which significantly reduce capacity for many hospitality businesses and consequently impact their profitability.

We certainly shouldn’t do anything to take the shine off this hugely positive watershed moment, but it is also important to review actions and their effects so as to learn lessons for the future. While businesses undoubtedly prefer to generate income through trading, support delivered from UK Government and the Northern Ireland Executive through a variety of schemes has been vital for their survival during the pandemic. Amongst the schemes that will need to be reviewed is the Localised Restrictions Support Scheme, which was launched as Northern Ireland was about to enter the second extended period of lockdown in October 2020. This enormously complex scheme has been a real lifeline that kept many shops, cafes, barbers and hairdressers afloat, as well as bars and restaurants that have depended on this support when restrictions have been applied to them. When the Finance Minister launched the scheme in October 2020, it was made explicitly clear that the policy intention was to include businesses that operate both a takeaway and dine-in service, but which have been limited to takeaway only because of restrictions.

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The ambition and importance of the scheme was bold, and much of its implementation was excellent, but some aspects also highlight the importance of looking back and learning lessons. Some businesses that legitimately received payments under the scheme are now being asked by the Department of Finance to repay the grant aid unless they can prove that the majority of their pre-pandemic trade was from dining-in. This demand for repayment has no basis in law, as the regulations clearly state that businesses are eligible for the scheme providing they are ‘severely restricted’, and repayment demands are causing undue stress to many business owners at a time when they should be looking forward to opening their doors once again. FSB has written to the Department on behalf of impacted members urging them to change their approach and abide by the spirit of the policy and resist the ad-hoc arbitrary demands that some officials are making of certain businesses whilst not applying to others.

While arguing about support grants and schemes with much of the economy now re-opening might seem like ‘old news’, for the affected business owners this continues to have real consequences for the sustainability of their business. While we certainly hope that we are over the worst in the pandemic in Northern Ireland, it is by no means beyond the realms of possibility that some short-term limited restrictions may be necessary. We only have to look to Scotland to see that businesses in Glasgow are under tighter restrictions than in other parts of the country. If we were to face a similar scenario it is important that appropriate support would exist for businesses and that it was allocated efficiently. That is why we must look back at how the Executive has performed and see what lessons must be learned from the past, for application in the future. Similarly, there is a need to assess how regulations and restrictions are agreed and communicated. The contradictions and moving goalposts around ‘essential’ and ‘non-essential’ retail created deep unfairness and uncertainty for independent businesses. This was perhaps most acutely visible during the Mother’s Day weekend when large multiples could sell flowers, but local florists could not.

So, as we approach the start of the school holidays - and hopefully with the end of the pandemic in sight - the Executive’s end of term report, might read ‘A good performance, but some room for improvement’. As we raise a glass to cheer the end of the pandemic, we must recall the words of philosopher George Santayana who stated ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’. Unless we identify what went wrong before, we run the risk of making the same mistakes in future.