For all the promise 2021 holds, those hoping for immediate respite from the pain of the past 12 months will have a bit longer to wait.
With significant increases in transmission, and particularly a new variant of the virus emerging, the Executive’s recent announcement of tougher restrictions was as predictable as it was essential. While businesses recognise the unenviable position that policymakers find themselves in, it’s undoubtedly a bitter pill for firms to swallow as they continue to do everything in their power just to stay afloat.
In the immediate term, we must put the health of our citizens first. That is beyond dispute. While businesses will continue to step up in the national interest to support the NHS, employees and customers in the weeks ahead, maintaining steadfast support for firms during this painful period will help ensure the recovery is delayed for as short a time as possible – as well as protecting vital jobs and firms that still teeter on the brink.
It was encouraging to see the Chancellor move swiftly once again to provide additional support to companies across Northern Ireland. With demand evaporating at breakneck speed, news of more, direct grants will provide some relief to eligible companies’ cashflow, especially in some of the hardest-hit sectors. The Executive must do all it can to make sure that money quickly hits businesses’ bank accounts.
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Yet, with the effects of a third lockdown impacting firms across the economy, there are other steps that the UK Government can take to help bridge to the all-important economic recovery phase.
Two things spring immediately to mind. Extending the Job Retention Scheme to end of the second quarter would provide firms with a clear line of sight, assisting planning and investment. And removing the business rate relief cliff edge in March by allocating additional funds to the Executive would create much-needed breathing space, particularly if combined with re-examining the case for VAT deferrals.
Aside from the pandemic, 2021 presents an opportunity to take stock of our approach to the economy and create a new model of competitiveness outside the European Union.
The Brexit process was long and at times bruising. On the implementation of the Protocol – the work is far from over – particularly as we look beyond the various grace periods for agri-food and medicines across this year.
Reports of disruption at borders, together with difficulties faced by food manufacturers and some retailers, are concerning as firms adjust to the realities of the new UK-EU trading relationship. CBI NI will continue working with its members to feed real time insights into Government to help ease this period of adjustment. As new processes bed in, it’s important mistakes at borders are coached, not penalised. Longer term, firms are keen for the UK Government and EU institutions to use existing pathways detailed within the Trade and Cooperation Agreement to strengthen coordination on services and protect trade flows between the two parties.
Yet despite all this, it doesn’t mean we should show any less ambition. Our newfound status will take time to bed down, but a collaborative and innovative approach is required for the sustainable and inclusive growth Northern Ireland needs. We must think bigger by taking a long view of how Northern Ireland can thrive in the global economy and work backwards from there.
We must also do better to address the key challenges of the day. Inequality remains a blight that must be solved and one which has deepened in 2020. That means delivering on an agenda that goes far beyond transport infrastructure, and truly international competitiveness strategies for our regions and nations. It means dynamic business sectors in each and every part of Northern Ireland. Promoting our innovation success stories and sharing prosperity across the region.
Whatever happens in 2021, we can be sure that Northern Ireland will remain outward looking, ambitious and set to compete for the next decade. The same key traits of clear-headedness, pragmatism and fairness that have held NI business in such high esteem for generations are needed now as we enter a new era for the country. Yes, we must continue to brace for the tough weeks and months ahead, but the overwhelming sense of relief that will greet us when we finally beat the virus will be worth waiting for.
While the new year may not have started with the good news we all hoped for, let me say this clearly. The end is in sight. The vaccine rollout is now underway, mass rapid testing is increasing, and a brighter future is within our reach. And with the UK set to host the important G7, B7 and COP26 summits this year, we have a unique opportunity to demonstrate our resolve, our leadership and our competitiveness to a waiting world. How we stood together, found common purpose and looked out for one another during the pandemic will stand us in good stead as we embrace the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.
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