Let pubs and cafes open immediately: Sammy Wilson

Pubs and cafes should be allowed to reopen immediately in Northern Ireland if social distancing is reduced to one metre, a DUP MP has said.

Colin Neill of Hospitality Ulster said reducing social distancing from two metres to one metre would allow businesses to break even
Colin Neill of Hospitality Ulster said reducing social distancing from two metres to one metre would allow businesses to break even

Sammy Wilson was speaking ahead of an expected announcement from the Executive of further steps to ease the coronavirus lockdown.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed yesterday that the government will review the social distancing rule requiring people to remain two metres apart to halt the spread of the virus.

And Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill yesterday said the latest measures to relax the lockdown, due to be announced later today with more to come on Thursday, will be welcomed by the hospitality industry.

Health Minister Robin Swann (centre) thanked a group of volunteer bikers who have covered the equivalent of a lap around the world delivering food and medicine across Northern Ireland during the pandemic. Jamie Watson, 14, from Stranocum who has made over 700 face shields, joined the minister at Stormont along with Philip Johnston and other members of the Volunteer Bikers Group

She was speaking to the BBC on another day when no new deaths due to coronavirus were recorded by the Department of Health.

Colin Neill, chief executive of Hospitality Ulster, described Ms O’Neill’s comments as “promising” and stressed the need for local businesses to be able to compete with their counterparts in the Republic of Ireland.

South of the Irish border, restaurants have been told they can reopen at the end of this month, while public houses have been told they can reopen just over a month later, in early August.

Mr Wilson believes Northern Ireland should allow its hospitality industry to reopen even sooner.

“We can’t keep on operating like we’re some kind of North Korean state where we prevent people from doing the normal things that people expect to be able to do in a functioning democracy,” he said.

“I see no reason why the hospitality industry in Northern Ireland can’t open tomorrow. The only thing really stopping them right now is the decision on whether we should have a two metre or one metre separation.”

Mr Neill said reducing the separation distance required from two metres to one metre would have a huge impact on businesses.

“It’s important for our sustainability,” he said.

“We do need to review the social distancing because at two metres we would only see about 30% of turnover, where one metre would give us about 70% – you could break even around that.

“And we are keen to use outdoor space, because the more space we have the more jobs we can save.”

Mr Neill also welcomed the intervention last week from Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon, who wrote to all 11 local councils in Northern Ireland to urge them to be “flexible and pragmatic” around on-street seating for cafes, bars and restaurants.

“That’s an important sign but it’s important that our local councils listen to that and work with us,” Mr Neill said.

Addressing Ms O’Neill’s comments regarding announcements expected today and on Thursday, the industry body chief said: “Obviously the comments from the deputy first minister sounds very positive and very promising.

“There are many challenges ahead for our industry.

“We need to see the finer detail but it’s a good first step in saving jobs.”

On competition with the Republic of Ireland, he said: “Our call is basically to do it (allow reopening) early because we have the Republic of Irland on the 29th of June and if we’re going to capture the domestic holiday market, we need to be fully operational.

“We hope we will see much more movement to allow us to compete.”