Lockdown timetable hailed as welcome news ... but business bodies warn of dire reality facing firms

Business lobby groups struck a generally positive tone after hearing the details of today’s planned easing of the Covid lockdown – but there were also warnings of just how dire things are for firms.

Thursday, 15th April 2021, 8:53 pm
Updated Friday, 16th April 2021, 9:27 am

Among those reacting to the announcement was Simon Hamilton, a former senior DUP figure who has repeatedly criticised politicians – including his former colleagues – for their handling of the lockdown.

Meanwhile TUV leader Jim Allister also criticised what he sees as a lack of urgency when it comes to allowing society to return to normal.

Mr Hamilton – previously minister in the health, finance, and economy departments, and now head of Belfast’s Chamber of Commerce – said he is “pleased” by the timetable but added: “Belfast Chamber has, on the basis of countless conversations with our members, warned that we were facing a jobs crisis in our city.

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Simon Hamilton, now head of the Belfast Chamber of Commerce, speaking at a DUP conference when he was an MLA

“Every day, I speak with business owners who are in distress and despair and were becoming devoid of hope.

“We firmly believed that the amazing speed and scale of the vaccination roll out and the continually improving health data justified giving those businesses indicative dates for re-opening.”

He said retail, close-contact services, hospitality, leisure and tourism businesses will welcome the timetable dates for re-opening, and that he looks forwards to “a safe reopening of our city’s economy” in general.

A string of business bodies issues similar statements.

The Londonderry chamber said: “It is also vital that the Executive continues to financially support those businesses and sectors which remain shut until they can stand on their own two feet, that ministers work hard to provide certainty and clarity for these sectors, and that a strong ‘shop local, support local’ message is adopted.”

And the chamber in Newry declared that “by shopping locally, you are supporting the many people in Newry who depend on these businesses for their livelihood”.

Retail NI said that “there is a lot of hard work ahead of re-opening” in terms of getting signs and “Covid marshals” in place – “but today is real progress”.

And the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) said: “Just because the shutters have been lifted does not mean that a business will be in a healthy financial state.

“The FSB has been calling for a ‘buffer zone’ between the re-opening date and the withdrawal of support...

“This buffer zone or tapering could mean the difference between survival or collapse for many businesses that have been closed for over a third of a year.”

And Mr Allister, representing North Antrim, said that today’s timetable was welcome “so far so it goes” – but “public patience went a long time ago” regarding the restrictions.

“With the success of our vaccination program and the small number of people in hospital due to the virus keeping the population in lockdown is indefensible, particularly as people see the restrictions easing with much greater speed on the mainland,” he said.

“Lockdown is an economic wrecking ball, and the sooner we can put it behind us the better.”

Echoing comments made by others, he noted the Republic’s comparitively sluggish vaccine roll-out – stressing it should not mean Northern Ireland faces a longer lockdown.

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