Fresh reminders that brighter days lie ahead for business

The recent extension of the vaccination programme to people in the 45-49 age bracket is another terrific step forward

NORTHERN Ireland's successful roll-out of the coronavirus vaccine has undoubtedly played a crucial role in the fact that we are gradually emerging from lockdown. The public has played their part too with distancing, hand-washing and being extremely patient while the work of vaccinators and health professionals makes an immeasurable difference to daily life in Northern Ireland.

It's also great to see pupils back in schools and hopefully the more restrictive measures that are holding our economy in stasis for the time being will start to ease as key indicators improve.

In the business sector there's been a real mood of reflection, with the desire to learn lessons from the pandemic. Principally, how we continue to proceed forward cautiously and pave the way to a sustainable and long-lasting recovery built on data and solid communication.

For companies in the hardest hit sectors, like hospitality and travel, communication is so important– especially when their futures are hanging by a thread.

Firms require clarity and transparency on the sequencing of restrictions being lifted to properly prepare operations and supply chains. For example, firms in the hospitality sector tell me that they require a number of weeks to plan, order stock, re-skill staff and, in many cases, even recruit new staff to replace those who have moved to other sectors to avoid being furloughed. Those things take time. Businesses can't just be turned on and off like light switches.

Early warning of key milestones and timetables for activity can help these companies make the detailed plans they need to open up safely and successfully. It's also conducive to encouraging business investment, which will be crucial to laying the foundations for the Economic Recovery Action plan. ‘The earlier, the better' is the key mantra for business right now.

While the recent extension of the inoculation programme to people in the 45-49 age bracket is another terrific step forward, there are other things we can do to improve safety and help kick start economic recovery. Rapid workplace testing is an obvious example. Tests provide an additional important layer of protection for everyone. Companies across the country see testing as a key part of the puzzle to reduce infection and protect employees in the workplace as we get the economy firing again.

The Department of Health's decision to make the national asymptomatic testing programme available to Northern Ireland employers was exactly what businesses wanted to hear. Although agri-food, manufacturing, essential retail and construction are the priority for the first phase of the programme, companies will be keen for this to be extended to different sectors as soon as possible to build confidence among staff and customers alike.

Continuing to make steady progress in emerging from lockdown will also rely on maintaining an agile approach that takes into account the day-to-day realities facing businesses on the ground. Throughout the crisis the Executive and UK government should be praised for working deftly to provide additional support to companies across the region. The announcement of targeted business support alongside the phased re-opening of the economy is a notable example.

The importance of business support for struggling sectors, such as hospitality, tourism and retail, can't be underestimated. The continuation of business rates relief for another 12 months provides much-needed financial certainty for local firms. While battling the pandemic this past year, companies have also faced the rising cost of doing business – from purchasing PPE and rapid testing kits for staff, to equipping people to properly work from home.

The key thing now is for the Executive to continue in that vein, remaining responsive and willing to engage with employers. This means ensuring firms access funds as quickly as possible and adapting support as necessary.

Business grants have, for example, been a lifeline for many small businesses, especially those that are only partially open and experiencing low volumes of trade. Continued grant support will be necessary for struggling sectors who are operating in an extremely challenging economic environment.

From reuniting with friends and family in the months to come, to big picture events coming down the track like B7, G7, and COP26 that will shape Northern Ireland's future for a better – there is much to look forward to.

This latest easing in lockdown measures is a reminder that brighter days lie ahead, if we only persevere through this period. That means continuing to cooperate on what works and innovating together where things can be improved. But most of all, working together for the greater good.

:: Angela McGowan is CBI Northern Ireland director

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