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Executive's shameful inflexibility is just an embarrassment

Bars and hospitality businesses in the north were kept in the dark for days as to if, or when, they could reopen. Picture: Hugh Russell
Gary McDonald Business Editor

BUSINESSES have constantly been told during this pandemic that it's easier to lock down than to open up.

Companies and their representative bodies don't like it, but they've have understood it.

Yet they've worked with, rather than against, the government, where any popularity gained in the early part of the Covid crisis had already been in steadily decline.

Firms have borne the often exorbitant costs of becoming Covid-compliant. They've also accepted that they must wait (and keep on waiting) for any financial support rightly due to come their way.

But what corporate, blue-collar and self-employed Northern Ireland wasn't prepared for is the Executive's shameful inflexibility on moving to extricate itself from the latest series of restrictions - decisions, they feel, that have been based on political points-scoring rather than for the greater good of the economy, let alone health.

And the sheer intransigence, their refusal to compromise, and what some see simply as a 'veto-everything' strategy by our elected leaders, has exasperated businesses to the extent that many won't even survive until Christmas.

An initial assessment of the economic impact of the current four-week circuit breaker shows it has cost the north's economy around £400 million.

That's £540 for every working and tax-paying man and woman - the equivalent on average of a month's mortgage payment, a car fill-up and your grocery shop, with a couple of Saturday night takeaways thrown in.

It comes on top of losses of £5 billion already caused by the impact of Covid-19 and the original lockdown earlier this year.

In pure human terms, the lockdown has had a direct impact on 60,000 people - mostly female, younger workers and the low-paid - with the most severe financial consequences coming for those working in hospitality, close contact services, supply chain businesses, and the arts, entertainment and recreation sectors.

But businesses and their employees can only take so much.

When the latest series of restrictions were imposed in October, they were promised time to prepare for re-opening and to get their heads around any changes. It should have been a week's notice. Instead, they've been given barely 24 hours.

It's wholly unacceptable. They've been marched up the hill a number of times already and don’t want to be marched up again. They need clarity around the ifs, whens and whats.

Businesses right now are as baffled and frustrated as the Executive should be embarrassed. As one commentator put it: "This horse-trading is an absolute disgrace".

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