Business

Colin Neill: One year on, no further forward – so where's the data?

"Let our pubs open" continues to be the plea from industry chiefs. Picture: Hugh Russell
Colin Neill

TODAY marks one full year since prime minister Boris Johnson uttered the fateful sentences that precipitated the lockdown of the entire hospitality sector across the UK.

Since then, it has been a nightmare for business owners and a very anxious period for the tens of thousands of staff across Northern Ireland worried about their jobs and ability to put food on the table at home. The stresses brought about by Covid are still front and centre.

What makes this more difficult to stomach is that this is the period of the year when, in normal times, the hospitality sector starts to emerge from its post new year period.

The St. Patrick’s Day bounce, the weather starting to improve and Easter just around the corner was always a time to look forward to meeting friends and family in our pubs, restaurants, hotels, coffee shops and attractions.

Now with 12 months of the doors being closed, the sector is still going through a living hell. Business owners are faced with no trade but continued bills and contributions to the likes of the furlough scheme. There is no money left. Something has got to give.

The reality is that we still don’t have indicatives dates, nor do we have any data, or know what criteria the Executive will base their decisions on in relation to timing or rules when they reopen the hospitality industry.

Is this the way to treat a sector which is the fourth largest private sector employer? Is this the way to treat a sector which contributes £2 billion to the economy each year; and is this the way to treat a sector which is so vitally important to communities and staving off the worst impacts of lengthy social isolation?

If we are not presented with the evidence, and if the government’s pathway to recovery has us lagging in terms of reopening, even behind non-essential retail, then what are we to presume?

Why are we being treated like this? We can only presume that there is a bias at play within the Department of Health because our sector is the one that serves alcohol. The sector has spent so much money in making it one of the most Covid-secure environments. Those making the decisions on reopening know that – they set the previous specifications.

So, what is the solution? We’ve worked hard to bring forward a sector led recovery document which is very specific about the interventions required by the government and some of the economic levers that need to be pulled. We need the Executive to deal with us directly and engage as soon as possible as we need to work our way out of this quickly, before more businesses suffer the inevitable.

The successful roll out of the vaccination programme and the reduced numbers of new Covid cases is fantastic to see, but we must capitalise on this good work. The economy does not sit in isolation and cannot recover at the click of the fingers.

We need to get rubber on the road now and springboard our way out of this. We understand that there may be a graduated response throughout the various phases, but we need to get moving.

Colin Neill is chief executive of Hospitality Ulster

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