Expectations grow for announcement on phased reopening of town centres

Stage two of Stormont's pathway to recovery will allow non-food retailers in Belfast city centre to reopen with restrictions. Picture Mark Marlow.
Ryan McAleer

STORMONT officials will consult with retail representatives over the coming days as expectations grow of the north progressing to the next stage of its plan to reopen town centres and the economy.

The Executive is due to reassess the current risk from Covid-19 by Thursday, with an announcement on a staggered implementation of step two possible by the end of this week.

Crucially the second stage includes non-food retailers, which will be allowed to open with limits on numbers and social distancing measures in place.

It comes amid reports that some large retail chains, including Matalan, have put Northern Ireland staff on notice of plans for them to return from furlough this week to prepare for the expected reopening within days.

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Matalan has already reopened 38 stores in England after a change in government guidance there on May 1 that placed homeware on the essential retail list. A spokesperson for the company provided a lengthy update on measures taken in Englannd, but simply stated that its six stores in Northern Ireland remain closed.

Yesterday, Belfast Chamber chief Executive Simon Hamilton wrote to First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, urging them to mirror moves in England and the Republic, by giving non-essential retailers a timeline in order to allow them to prepare for reopening.

Non-essential retailers are due to begin reopening from June 15 in England, with the Republic aiming for June 29. Small retail outlets across the border can open from June 8. Mr Hamilton said their counterparts in the north had been left at a disadvantage due to the lack of a clear timeline.

Director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium (NIRC), Aodhán Connolly, also urged the Executive yesterday to consider the measures retailers have carried out in preparation for safe reopening.

“Retailers have already spent over £5 million in Northern Ireland on social distancing and protecting staff and customers and more will be needed as our high streets come back to life,” he said.

“Retail is 12 per cent of the NI economy but supports many more industries. The safe reopening of retail has a multiplier effect supporting industries such as agri-food and services to come back online and delivering a welcome boost to the Northern Ireland economy. “

Mr Connolly said the NIRC and shopworkers’ union USDAW have produced a social distancing guide for retailers, based on the experience of pharmacies, supermarkets and other essential traders.

“It takes time to get supply chains back to the capacity needed to support the industry so we need a timescale for reopening now,” he said.

“We also hope that the Executive will follow the example of the UK Government to institute a ‘reopening high street safely fund’.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for the First and deputy First Minster said: “The five step approach towards recovery sets out very clearly that decisions on relaxing the restrictions can only be taken when the scientific evidence and medical advice indicates the time is right to do so.

“Ministers have committed to keeping the restrictions under continuous review and the next full statutory review of the regulations will take place by 28th May.

“As soon as the Executive is in a position to provide more clarity for businesses, that will be communicated. In the meantime, the Executive will continue to do everything possible to support affected businesses during this emergency.”

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