Counting cost of Covid curbs: 30,000 NI job losses by end of 2020 predicts top economist

Northern Irish job losses could hit 30,000 by the end of the year thanks to the government Covid curbs, a leading economist is estimating.

Esmond Birnie made the comments as the Department for the Economy attempts to draw up its own figures for how many people will have been put out of work by the coronavirus restrictions.

Dr Birnie, a senior economist at the University of Ulster, also warned it is possible more people could die from the ill-effects of an economic slowdown than from Covid-19.

A meeting of Stormont’s economy committee was yesterday told that the Department for the Economy is working on producing an estimate for job loss numbers.

People walk past Debenhams on Market Street in Manchester. Administrators have "regretfully" decided to start winding down operations while continuing to seek offers for all or parts of the business, after JD Sports confirmed it had pulled out of a possible rescue deal, putting 12,000 workers at risk.

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A couple of weeks ago the department had produced estimates of how much damage was done to the economy by the shutdown in springtime.

The answer? Somewhere between £4 billion and £5 billion in lost economic activity – an absolutely colossal sum.

For context, £5 billion is roughly equivalent to the entire combined budgets of the following six departments:

– Education (£2.3bn)

– Justice (£1.1bn)

– Communities (£824m)

– Infrastructure (£418m)

– Agriculture (£226m)

– and Finance (£169m)

Asked what such figures will translate into in terms of livlihoods, Dr Birnie told the News Letter: “Between March and early Autumn official figures suggest about 800,000 job losses across the UK.

“If NI took its share of that (about 2% to 2.5%) it would equal about 20,000.

“Of course we have had two further periods of restrictions since the early Autumn, so by year end the total employment loss here could be 20,000 to 30,000.

“After that, into 2021 hopefully the roll-out of the vaccine implies the economy can make some recovery in 2021, so some (though sadly probably not all) of the jobs come back in some shape or form.”

But he added: “It will be some time (if ever) before job levels in non-food retail and aerospace manufacturing get back to the 2019 levels.”

He also said that research by the English NHS into the link between poverty and mortality indicates that “a Covid recession which led to GDP being at least 1% lower for three or four years would be associated with a total loss of life in England of 50,000-70,000”.

That this is greater than the number of people who have died there since the start of the year, he noted, adding: “And the same would apply to NI, where the figure could be 2,500 to 3,500.”

Christopher Stalford, a DUP MLA who sits on Stormont’s economy committee, said the roughly £5bn hit which the country took earlier this year is “astounding”.

He said: “While it’s easy to look at numbers and figures, the reality is these numbers represent a loss of income to ordinary men and women.

“We must always be mindful of the fact that the lowest-paid workers are the real people who are being impacted by the restrictions.”

He fears some families will be push them into the arms of loan sharks in order to pay for Christmas, adding that it all adds to the must allow people to return to work “in as safe a way as possible – but as soon as possible”.

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