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'Mother of all bailouts' needed as thousands set to lose their jobs

Economy Minister Diane Dodds (centre) meets a new Business Alliance in Belfast yesterday. From left - Stephen Kingon (Centre for Competitiveness), Ann McGregor (NI Chamber), Gordon Milligan (IoD), Ian Henry (NI Chamber) Kirsty McManus of (IoD) and Adrian Doran (CBI)
Gary McDonald Business Editor

NORTHERN Ireland faces losing even more jobs in the coronavirus crisis than the 41,500 axed over the four years of the last recession, a leading economist fears.

It came as Retail Excellence forecast that 340,000 people will be out of work across Ireland by the end of this week as a result of measures being put in place to tackle coronavirus.

With the economy hurtling towards its biggest slowdown in a century, Ulster Bank's Richard Ramsey warned: "At a global, national and local level, ultimately we'll need to see the mother of all bailouts - bigger and more widespread than happened over a decade ago."

With jobs across retails, accommodation, tourism and retail being obliterated virtually by the hour, Mr Ramsey said: "During the last recession, 41,500 employee jobs were lost in the local economy, but this took close to four years.

"The present sudden stop in economic output shouldn't see job losses extending for this length of time, but the overall trajectory will be very different.

"The duration of the job losses will likely be counted in quarters rather than years, and the falls will be extremely sharp - the like of which we will probably never have seen in that time scale."

His comments came as the heads of four business membership organisations in the north - CBI, IoD, the Centre for Competitiveness and NI Chamber - established a COBRA-style committee aimed at supporting businesses through the Covid-19 crisis and acting as a direct conduit to government.

They met Economy Minister Diane Dodds, where a number of urgent issues were discussed, including looking at how businesses involved in manufacturing can, where possible, shift production to ventilators, hand sanitisers or personal protective equipment.

The meeting also looked at how government can provide prompt payments to suppliers and discussed issues around making grants for up to £3,000 to SMEs, creating a hardship fund for hospitality, tourism and production firms given that factories will close, and asking commercial and residential landlords to give some relief to tenants.

Meanwhile the chairman of Co Down food manufacturer Finnebrogue Artisan says hospitality sector staff laid off amidst the Covid-19 crisis should be asked to man depleted food production lines.

And Denis Lynn also said self-isolation rules must be relaxed for food production workers, otherwise the UK faces "the grave reality of imminent food shortages".

He said: “It's vital the government steps in immediately to make food manufacturing a protected industry to ensure we are able to feed people right now.

“We are currently meeting the increased supermarket demand brought about by millions of people now eating all three meals a day in the home, but we are facing an imminent labour shortage that will grind production lines to a halt.”

With thousands of workers in the north understood to be heeding warnings to stay at home and people-movement ground to a halt, the impact on business has been significant.

Hundreds of taxi-drivers have parked up their cabs, although the north's biggest firm Valucabs, which has more than 800 drivers, has moved to freeze depot rents and car payments to ease cash flow for employees.

The parent firm of drinks giant Guinness has set up a €1.5 million fund in Ireland, most of it to support bar staff, although €300,000 is going to elderly vulnerable people.

Diageo Ireland's country director Oliver Loomes said: “We've been supporting the licensed trade in the last week through what is an unprecedented period as we all work together to keep people safe through the ongoing closure of licensed premises across the country.

“We will be working with our partners in the trade, including Hospitality Ulster, on how we can support bar staff to maximum effect using this funding in what is a very fast-moving situation.”

In a boost to business, Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon introduced a temporary relaxation in delivery drivers' hours to ensure vital food and medical supplies to shops are maintained, a move welcomed by retail chiefs.

But Retail NI chief Glyn Roberts stressed that the message remains: “Please shop responsibly. Don't panic buy and stockpile as you will leave others, including the most vulnerable in our society, without essential items.”

Airporter, the shuttlebus service that links Derry to the Belfast airports, is suspending operations from Friday.

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