Brendan Mulgrew: We can come out of the pandemic with an eye on a brighter economic future
THE only certainty that we can claim coming out of the pandemic is that there are no right answers, not yet anyway.
There are also no easy answers and that is something we should all bear in mind when those who we have elected to government are deciding what measures to take to combat the virus, and how to balance the requirements to keep the economy open while protecting public health.
It is almost an impossible job, and in our case the Executive which was only put in place in mid-January, faced these huge issues only a few weeks after the welcome return of devolution. I am not advocating blind or unswerving support just for the sake of it, but I think we can all conclude that our ministers are doing what they think is best, often reacting to unseen and every serious developments day by day and sometimes hour by hour.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who definitely has not earned the right to unswerving loyalty or support, has just announced an England-wide lockdown starting this Thursday and running until December 2. He is doing so in the face of significant and serious advice from his medical and scientific advisers who are adamant that hospitals there will be overrun within weeks if immediate steps are not taken. Those same advisers called on the government to initiate a two week long ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown in the middle of last month. Johnson and Co rejected that advice and this new lockdown is the result.
Around Europe other countries are moving into various versions of lockdown, with France and Germany going full tilt, everything closed expect schools and essential workplaces. Even Sweden, often pointed at by free marketeers as an example of a country which didn’t lock down as did okay, case and deaths are rising and indeed a Swedish lockdown is now on the agenda too.
Where does all of this leave us in Northern Ireland? We are already two thirds of the way through our latest four-week long version of 'Lockdown 2'. For sure we are a long way off the early spring period, when streets were deserted, virtually all businesses were closed and kids were lapping up an extended holiday.
However the measures we are now living through are not insignificant, they are having an impact on the economy and they were not imposed lightly. The Republic of Ireland moved a few days later than we did, but also put in place a longer lockdown period, six weeks in their case.
That means that, as things stand, we are about 10 days away from re opening our pubs (for example), just as all of our neighbours are imposing very strict closures. I don’t know if that is a realistic prospect and I imagine there will be serious political debate and negotiation between now and November 13.
The measures we are currently living with were necessary given the rising infection levels. We can see already the reduction of cases in the Derry and Strabane council areas and just this past weekend we had the lowest number of new cases across Northern Ireland for a month. So the restrictions do work, that is demonstrably clear. That in turn means the restrictions are necessary.
Those who advocate on behalf the business community do so very sincerely and I respect the position from which they are coming. In fact it is hard to disagree with many of the points made on behalf of individual sectors, be that pubs, restaurants, hairdressers, dentists and others.
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However if we unpack and unpick the restrictions, sector by sector, based on slices of data which apply here and there, the cumulative impact of the measures are lost. That is why on balance, Robin Swann and colleagues have got this one right.
There are no right answers and this is a very difficult situation. Yes we need an economy to return to, but does anyone really believe that if numbers of coronavirus cases continue to rise, that people won’t simply stay home of their own accord? I have talked to publicans who say that between Monday and Saturday their venues were virtually empty and they put that down to fear of the health risks.
So do we take a light touch approach and let the virus run abated? That’s not a serious project and would ruin the economy in the long run, so interventions are required. Do we crack down totally and close all sectors, including schools and retail outlets? That's unrealistic too and will have a serious impact on the economy, on livelihoods and on our mental health. So a middle way has to be found. None of us of can be sure we are on the right road, but none of can be sure we are not.
These are dark days, sometimes it is hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. As we wait for the light, let's be a bit easier on each other and see the serious circumstances in which tough decisions are being made by our Executive. We can, we will, get through this. We can even come out of it with an eye on a brighter long term economic future, but only by pulling together. Make that choice.
Brendan Mulgrew is managing partner at MW Advocate (www.mwadvocate.com). Follow him on Twitter at @brendanbelfast