Frustration with Stormont builds as UK nations ease out of lockdown more quickly than Northern Ireland

Pubs and restaurants in Northern Ireland fear they are falling further behind the rest of the UK when it comes to plans to ease lockdown.

Tuesday, 6th April 2021, 8:42 am
Updated Tuesday, 6th April 2021, 8:51 am
Closed pubs in Belfast City centre in recent weeks, during the ongoing lockdown

Colin Neill chief executive of Hospitality Ulster, said many businesses here are “running out of road” as he hit out at authorities in Northern Ireland for failing to “engage” to plan for opening back out.

His comments come just days before restaurants and pubs will be allowed to serve customers outdoors in England, and around three weeks before similar steps are taken in Scotland.

In Wales, meanwhile, hospitality business owners and customers can look forward to a possible reopening on April 26.

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Northern Ireland, however, remains the only part of the UK without even an indicative opening date.

Instead, a ‘pathway to recovery’ document sets out five steps out of lockdown, with society and the economy divided into nine key sectors.

With the current relaxation plan moving different sectors to different phases in the plan, it remains difficult to determine where the next easements might come.

Mr Neill said: “We’re getting a continuous lack of engagement from government around reopening. We’re hearing nothing at all.

“We have asked for indicative dates, we have asked for the reopening criteria and got none of it.”

He continued: “The thing is, we are sitting here and people are running out of road. They’ve borrowed the max from the banks.

“We’re looking at the other three regions of the UK and they’ve all got indicative dates for opening back up.

“If we’re going to the bank to ask for more money, we need to have projections. That’s why dates are so important. They need to know what it is based on.”

On the public health situation, Mr Neill said: I’m a layman. I’m no expert on public health. But to me our vaccination rate and our infection rate seems comparable. We’re not leading, we’re not last.

“Even if we were lagging behind by a week, they could tell us if that is the case so that we could prepare.”

He added: “There is no excuse for not engaging for planning. You can’t plan soon enough.

“Even if they are going to continue to outright refuse to give us a date for reopening, why won’t they engage for planning?”

Mr Neill’s comments follow similar remarks from the chief executive of Retail NI.

Glyn Roberts, speaking to the News Letter last week, said there is great frustration with Stormont from his industry when it comes to the roadmap out of lockdown.

Mr Roberts said: “Frustration with the executive is off the scale. There is no doubt about that. There are huge question marks about the level of preparedness in terms of getting cities ready for reopening. It is not being done in a coherent or sustainable way.”

He was speaking after more than 400 mostly small, independent businesses wrote to the first and deputy first ministers to express serious concern about the lack of information.

Meanwhile, Mr Neill has said the industry is opposed to the introduction of a vaccine passport scheme in Northern Ireland.

His comments come as a series of measures, including Covid passports, are to be trialled in England to allow the return of sports matches, events and nightclubs.

The passes would show if someone had been vaccinated, had a recent negative test, or natural immunity.

Mr Neill said: “We are not in favour of them as an industry. They may have a place for large events, but not to go to the pub or to go to a restaurant.

“As licensed premises, there is a legally enshrined right of refusal provided its applied in a non-discriminatory way, equal to all.

“In theory, we could do them but as an industry we are not in favour of them. There are lots of issues around discrimination, people that can’t take a vaccine and all of that.”

He continued: “I think it is unlikely that we would see individual pubs or restaurants request them. Unless there was some direction from government, it is not something we would be pushing for.”

UUP MLA Alan Chambers, a member of the Stormont health committee and party colleague of the Health Minister Robin Swann, said he could foresee “many problems” with the idea.

“On a personal level I can see advantages in a system of vaccine passports being established but equally I can see many problems, difficulties and maybe even legal challenges arising from them being created.”

He added: “I would want to see the outcome of comprehensive public consultation as well as hearing from the commercial sectors.”

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