British PM offers hope of 'more light and less tunnel'

Outdoor hospitality will reopen in England on April 12 and indoor hospitality on May 17. The industry in Northern Ireland is now urging Stormont to follow suit. Picture: Hugh Russell

HOSPITALITY and retail bosses in the north insist prime minister Boris Johnston's roadmap for reopening businesses in England "gives us some hope too".

With non-essential retail and hospitality in Northern Ireland estimated to have lost close to half a billion pounds in trade and sales since last March, they are taking solace from confirmation that restrictions will be eased in some UK regions from April 12.

From that date, non-essential retail, hairdressers, nail salons, libraries and museums can open, as can pubs and restaurants with outdoor areas. Indoor hospitality can reopen from May 17.

“This gives us some hope that we are coming to the end of lockdown three," Hospitality Ulster chief executive Colin Neill said.

“Yes, the setting out of the timeline is just for England. We also understand that things can slip, and the lifting of restrictions will be based on data.

“But we are encouraged by the prime minister's comments, which gives us a strong indication that we are going in the right direction.”

The lobby body is now urging the Stormont Executive to give a similar defined pathway, with specific dates, when they bring forward their framework for the reopening of Northern Ireland to the Assembly on March 1.

“If this can be carried out even sooner, this would be most welcome, as every day is critical,” Mr Neill added.

“The hospitality sector has suffered massively and now must be given a time scale it can work to as it prepares for a safe reopening.”

Hospitality and the wider supply chain say they desperately need ongoing financial support not only for the next few weeks but for as long as pubs and restaurants are operating at a reduced trade.

The industry also says next week's Budget must include an extension to the furlough scheme and business rates holiday, a reduction in VAT for on-trade alcohol sales as well as food and cutting duty for beer served in pubs to help them compete with supermarkets.

Retail NI's chief executive Glyn Roberts described the prime minister's roadmap for reopening as “both realistic and welcome”.

He added: “We look forward to the publication of the Executive's roadmap next week, because it is vital they give less tunnel, more light and, above all else, hope to our community.

“Covid marshals, public hand sanitisers and business compliance scoring with the regulations all need to be in place for the reopening of non-essential retail to reassure shoppers and to limit transmission.

“This work needs to start now, but it will require considerable effort from the Executive, local councils and businesses working in partnership to produce a reopening plan for our high streets.”

Even if Stormont mirrors Johnston's English timetable, it will still be too late for the crucial Easter holiday trading.

But businesses say they are realistic and aren't expecting to get the green light before mid-April, but just want to get going as soon as it’s safe to do so.

"Retailers don’t want to re-open too early only to face another lockdown down the line. That’s the last thing they want to see,” Roberts added.

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