Business

Angela McGowan: Confidence must be rebuilt if reopening is to lead to recovery

There must be a review around self-isolation rules, because Northern Ireland cannot afford mass self-isolation in its workforce when staff shortages are already acute

AS the days and weeks go by, more and more of our businesses are re-opening. That’s great news for them, their staff and Northern Ireland’s economy. Many also have their sights fixed on securing a safe, phased return to the office in September.

Yet it would be a mistake to assume it’s all going to be plain sailing ahead.

As case numbers rise, so do vaccinations too, yet understandably there will be plenty of nerves around reopening. Every business has a duty to safely support their staff and their customers through it. Question is, how do we secure a confident transition, to unleash the kind of economic recovery we need?

Different approaches across the UK, as well as the Republic of Ireland are adding to the complexity of reopening. Major challenges remain for our companies looking to rebuild trade to pre-pandemic levels.

Restoring confidence – both for customers and employees – is chief among them and must be the immediate priority for both business and the Executive.

Every action and intervention we take as we learn to live with the virus in the coming days must be viewed through the lens of rebuilding that confidence.

For businesses, that means continuing to put safety at the heart of their approach – as they have since the start of the Covid crisis – while for the Executive it will mean supporting employers to plot a smooth course ahead.

Here at the CBI, we have identified six confidence building measures to ease the journey to recovery.

First as we embark on the mid-summer break, we need urgent clarity on the Executive’s position on working from home, giving offices times to properly prepare. Leadership from our policy-makers on this issue is essential.

Second, reviewing self-isolation rules, along with an increase in the flexibility within the testing system itself. This can combine to reduce the impact of staff shortages, which are already hindering Northern Irish businesses’ ability to trade their way to recovery – particular for firms in hospitality.

We’ve all seen the raft of pingdemic headlines coming out of England. Regrettably the UK Government’s current approach to self-isolation there is closing down the economy rather than opening it up - surely the opposite of what politicians intended. Businesses based in England have exhausted their contingency plans when it comes to addressing staff shortages and are at risk of grinding to a halt in the next few weeks.

The Northern Irish Executive has a window of opportunity to reduce the impact of such issues. They must take it and promptly confirm that those who have been double-vaccinated and the covid-recovered no longer need to self-isolate if not infectious and introduce a test and release scheme. We sincerely cannot afford mass self-isolation in Northern Ireland’s workforce when staff shortages were already acute.

Third, and unsurprisingly, we believe that the Executive must also spell out a future vision for workplace testing, which should include funding, to support a pragmatic approach to self-isolation.

Number four – businesses, especially SMEs, will need guidance on what they must do right now. Firms will naturally do all they can to keep employees and customers safe and know consultation with staff will be a key tool. But there can be no grey areas in the expectations upon firms, which means any health and safety rules, risk assessments and potential for inadvertent discrimination must be clearly and rapidly communicated.

Fifth is support for firms to implement any measures required to cut risks. The HSENI must help businesses to understand how to assess risks within their own working environment, as well as the impact of measures like improved ventilation and enhanced cleaning.

Finally, it is incumbent upon businesses to share examples of good practice, and to be open to that learning. Firms going the extra mile to maintain testing or implement safety measures will ensure workers and customers can engage with confidence.

We must get this right. It will take concerted efforts by both policy makers and business to do so – but the rewards for success are as large.

After more than 15 months of struggle, this is our opportunity to restore wind in the sails of our economy. But this only happens if people have the confidence to travel, to go shopping, to eat out. We must give them that confidence.

Then, at last, we just might be able to put the worst of the pandemic behind us and look to build a sustainable economic recovery, prioritising the prosperity of all communities across Northern Ireland.

:: Angela McGowan is CBI Northern Ireland director

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