Businesses in plea: 'Think again on lockdown'

ALL QUIET: During the early stages of the lockdown the streets of Belfast were eerily quiet. Picture: Hugh Russell
Gary McDonald Business Editor

IMPOSING further stringent lockdown measures in the north will be a hammer blow to business and public confidence "and will set the economy back decades", a former Stormont minister is warning.

And with latest government figures out this morning which show thousands more people out of work, any new restrictions will only eat away further at people's livelihoods.

Simon Hamilton, who once held health, finance and economy portfolios at Stormont and is now chief executive of Belfast Chamber of Commerce, has issued a passionate plea to ministers to "think again" about going down the road of a so-called circuit breaker shutdown.

It came as Liverpool, a city region of 1.5 million people, became the first area to England to enter the highest Covid alert level, with the closure of pubs, bars, betting shops, gyms, leisure centres and casinos, while household mixing will be banned anywhere indoors and in private gardens.

Prime minister Boris Johnston, in an announcement to MPs, said restricting interactions between people would save lives and help prevent the NHS being overwhelmed.

He was speaking hours after a virtual Cobra meeting with senior ministers from within the UK's devolved administrations.

The Stormont Executive has since brought forward its weekly meeting from Thursday until today, and many fear ministers may attempt to mirror some of what the PM has done in England.

But business groups believe there is clear evidence to the contrary, insisting that companies cannot be subjected to a rollercoaster of stop-start restrictions with no end in sight.

Mr Hamilton said: “Before taking any decision on placing Northern Ireland back into lockdown, ministers need to consider and answer a number of key questions.

“For instance, how many businesses do they believe will close as a result of another lockdown or circuit breaker; how many jobs will be lost and what is its plan to help the economy recovery and find new work for those affected?

“What support will the Executive offer businesses to deal with the running costs they will continue to incur if they are forced to close and what assistance will be given to businesses who aren’t told to shut but are part of the supply chain of those that are or see their footfall slump because of the restrictions and are therefore going to be severely impacted too?

“What is the evidence for targeting certain sectors like hospitality for stricter restrictions and a possible lockdown when we've been told in recent weeks that social gatherings such as house parties are the problem?

“And what guarantees will the Executive give that any lockdown will only be for a few weeks and also what assurances can be given that if businesses are forced to close for a period, they will be able to reopen without further restrictions?”

LOCKED DOWN: What new restrictions, if any, will be the Executive put in place? Picture: Hugh Russell

Mr Hamilton says the Chamber accepts the severity of the current situation, but insists: “It's clear that whatever measures the Executive introduce, they won’t kill off the virus, but the inadvertent effect of their decisions could kill off many businesses and lots of jobs, affecting thousands upon thousands of families.

“The Executive faces some difficult decisions, but surely they know that stopping and restarting large swathes of our economy again and again and expecting there to be no damage, no business closures, no job losses and no uncertain futures for many families is foolish.”

Retail NI chief executive Glyn Roberts has contacted finance minister Conor Murphy asking what support retailers will be given if they aren't forced to close but see their customers numbers and trade dramatically decrease because of additional restrictions.

He warned: “Throwing our economy off a cliff will not help us to deal with Covid and may well make a bad situation even worse.”

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