Northern Ireland news

Hospitality sector voices frustration over Covid-19 mandatory closures

Bars and hospitality businesses in the north face an extension of lockdown measures. Picture: Hugh Russell
Rebecca Black, PA

Frustration has been expressed over the announcement that non-essential retail, pubs and restaurants must close for two weeks.

Many businesses, which were closed under a previous circuit break, reopened across the north this morning.

However they must close their doors again for two weeks from November 27 under the latest plan to stem the spread of coronavirus.

David Gough, owner of the Newton Brunch Bar in east Belfast, which previously welcomed international visitors to attempt their enormous Ulster Fry challenge, described the latest announcement as "devastating".

He said the "constant changing of the rules" is "killing businesses", and urged Stormont to ensure financial support is paid out.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill said the decision was "difficult but right".

"We had to take these difficult decisions but it came on the back of strong medical and scientific advice, and was necessary," she told a virtual Sinn Féin policy launch.

"So, I can say in terms of the anger that is felt by businesses, we share the concern, we share all that concern, we understand how difficult this is, how challenging this is.

"Where the Executive needs to be very focused right now is on getting financial support out to those businesses and unfortunately, to date, I don't believe it has been sufficient."

Ms O'Neill said she raised "as an issue of concern" that businesses can open on November 20 before having to close again next week, during the meeting of the Stormont Executive on Thursday, leading some to fear a rush of shoppers next week.

"I believe that it is contradictory in a sense because you are telling the public, and rightly so, that they are in a very difficult position and health care workers and our health system is under huge pressure, and we need to intervene, but at the same time you're allowing businesses to open this morning," she said.

"I put that to the health minister, very bluntly, very clearly, and was told they were content that this was OK, that this was factored into the modelling which they had brought in front of us.

"It was on the basis that health had said it was fine to open that we then accepted that that was position that they were putting forward."

Earlier Justice Minister Naomi Long apologised after Ms O'Neill and First Minister Arlene Foster had not given media interviews since the announcement last night.

She said her understanding had been that the top ministers along with Health Minister Robin Swann would have been engaging with the media.

"We were all to make ourselves available to do interviews and so on today to try to explain what is obviously quite a devastating announcement yesterday for a lot of businesses, and I can only apologise because that does not appear to have happened, but I am certainly happy to do my best to explain what happened," she told the BBC.

"We were in a situation where we were given advice that if we did not make decisions with respect to lockdown and more enhanced restrictions and quite a strong circuit-breaker, that we would end up having to bring in restrictions over Christmas and that we would have our hospitals in a pretty bad state."

Chairman of the BMA's Northern Ireland Council Dr Tom Black said the decision taken by the Stormont Executive on Thursday evening should have been taken five weeks ago.

However he welcomed that the Executive was "being led by the science again", and had "made the right decision".

"We need this lockdown if we are going to take the pressure off the hospitals. The hospitals are at breaking point," he said.

"The decision that was made five weeks ago was the wrong decision, it was not severe enough at the time and it needed to be taken earlier.

"We should have brought in more severe measures five weeks ago if we were going to stop this happening now. It's happened, we have a lot of hard work to do."

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