Fresh restrictions with no support for businesses would be a ‘dereliction of duty’, warns former Stormont minister

It would be a “dereliction of duty” to introduce fresh restrictions but leave businesses without support, a former Stormont minister has warned.

By Niall Deeney
Saturday, 18th December 2021, 8:05 am

Belfast Chamber of Commerce chief executive Simon Hamilton, a former economy, finance and health minister in the Northern Ireland Executive, was speaking amid increasing speculation about fresh restrictions being introduced after Christmas to tackle the Omicron variant.

Executive ministers are due to meet next week to make a decision on whether new restrictions are needed, having been advised by medical and scientific experts this week that “significant intervention” could be necessary to prevent hospitals becoming overwhelmed if the worst fears about the new variant are realised.

But business groups, including Retail NI, have warned the Executive that moving ahead with tough new restrictions or a fresh lockdown would be impossible without the various financial support measures in place for previous lockdowns.

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Pacemaker Press 30-04-2021: Shops, gyms, pubs, restaurants and cafes in Northern Ireland have begun to reopen on Friday after a four-month winter lockdown. Hospitality businesses must only operate outdoors, with table service and limited numbers per table. Shoppers pictured in Belfast Friday morning. Picture By: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker.

To that end, Finance Minister Connor Murphy has been calling on the UK Treasury to get the chequebook out.

Mr Murphy wrote to the Treasury earlier this week to call for increased funding and the reinstatement of furlough where necessary.

He said: “The emergence of the new Omicron variant has significantly affected the economy with pressures being felt most acutely in the hospitality sector in the run up to Christmas.”

He added: “I have stressed to the Treasury that the Executive need to be able to respond quickly and flexibly to the emerging public health position. Having to wait to see what England’s response is in order to know what level of financial support is available here is an untenable position.”

His calls for fresh funding to help pay the cost of imposing new restrictions have been backed by, amongst others, the Londonderry Chamber of Commerce.

On Friday, Londonderry chamber chief executive Paul Clancy said: “While we are conscious of the need to do everything in our power to quash the expected omicron spike of infections, this cannot and must not come at the detriment to our already-suffering hospitality and retail businesses. Our shops, pubs, restaurants, and hotels cannot be allowed to become the scapegoat.”

He continued: “Now is the time for significant and substantial financial support for our businesses across the North West and Northern Ireland.

“While we understand that devolved administrations across the UK like Stormont are limited in what finances they can provide, and that Finance Minister Conor Murphy has last night called on the Treasury to reinstate substantial financial supports, we are urging our Executive ministers, as a united collective, to strongly lobby the UK Government and the Treasury to put in place a proper financial package which supports our businesses.”

Mr Clancy added: “Any extra money, like the £75m Northern Ireland received from the Treasury earlier this week, must also be directed towards the economy and protecting our businesses.”

His counterpart in Belfast, Mr Hamilton, said: “As Executive rhetoric ramps up and some Ministers speculate about further restrictions, the negative impact on businesses, especially in hospitality, is increasing with cancellations and some having to close.”

He added: “Leaving those businesses without any support is a dereliction of duty.”

Meanwhile, the latest figures from the Department of Health show another 1,887 confirmed cases of the virus were reported on Friday.

There were 312 Covid positive patients in hospital, of whom 34 were in intensive care. A further three patients who had previously tested positive for Covid-19 have died in Northern Ireland, the department’s figures also show, bringing the total since the start of the pandemic to 2,945.

Separate figures, reported on a weekly basis by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA), show another 28 deaths during the week ending December 10, taking the total recorded by the agency to 3,950.

By the same date, the Department of Health had reported a total of 2,921.

NISRA’s figures differ from the Stormont departments in that every fatality where the virus is mentioned on a death certificate is recorded, regardless of testing status.

l Ben Lowry, page 11