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Off-licences are 'essential' and can open again

Shutters were still down yesterday at this Belfast off-licence. Picture by Hugh Russell
Shutters were still down yesterday at this Belfast off-licence. Picture by Hugh Russell Shutters were still down yesterday at this Belfast off-licence. Picture by Hugh Russell

STANDALONE off-licences across Northern Ireland have been given the go-ahead to re-open their doors from Saturday after being added to list of essential businesses that can stay open during the current lockdown.

On Tuesday Westminster yesterday confirmed off licences were ‘essential businesses’ in Britain.

But the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister didn't immediately follow that lead and insisted they would keep the situation under review.

However, even trade body Hospitality Ulster admitted to being confused at the will-they-won't-they attitude at Stormont, leaving around 80 shops in limbo waiting for confirmation, and in the meantime trying to set up delivery services.

But it was finally confirmed last night that off-licences - independents as well as chains like Winemark and Wine Flair - can officially re-open.

That is likely to take some pressure off the large supermarkets, which had been allowed to keep their own wines, beers and spirits sections operating.

Colin Neill from Hospitality Ulster said: “Off licences that are standalone have a role to play in the current situation because, with people being confined to their homes, they might want a drink to keep morale up.

“Plus, closing the off licences has driven unnecessary footfall to the big supermarkets, which is impacting on social distancing and adding to queuing in many case, so it's a welcome development if they can re-open.”

There remains a cohort of people in the north who are dependent on alcohol, and reducing the availability of booze could leave to them be taking up space in hospitals if they are forced to withdraw from it.

Meanwhile, laying bare the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, a new report from Wagestream says the UK's hospitality sector has experienced a 77 per cent slowdown in the past month.