Northern Ireland news

Data suggests NI suffered worst of both worlds on economic and health fronts in 2020

A leading economist has said the argument that Stormont traded off a worse economic outcome to have fewer Covid deaths does not stand up. Picture by Mal McCann.
Ryan McAleer

THE north suffered the worst of both worlds on economic and health fronts in 2020, a leading economist has suggested.

Ulster University’s Esmond Birnie said Northern Ireland probably experienced one of the most severe economic contractions in Europe, with GDP shrinking by 12 per cent.

He said the north is now very likely in the midst of a double dip recession.

By comparison, the Republic’s GDP is expected to have contracted by just 3.2 per cent in 2020, inevitably putting further distance between the two economies.

Dr Birnie said the argument that Stormont traded off a worse economic outcome to have fewer Covid deaths also falls short.

“In comparative international terms our total Covid death rate was higher than average,” he said.

“We cannot take any comfort from an argument that perhaps we had a more restrictive lockdown which helped produce a more severe recession, but also saved more lives.

“Northern Ireland’s comparative international record in terms of Covid health during 2020 was also relatively poor.”

As of December 21, Dr Birnie said the Covid death rate in the north was twice that of Canada, Germany and Slovakia; 17 times that of Australia; and 130 times New Zealand’s.

His analysis follows the publication of the UK’s GDP data for November, which showed a 2.6 per cent decline for the month.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) data showed a 3.4 per cent contraction in the services sector, while manufacturing remained flat. The construction sector saw some growth.

Dr Birnie said the evidence points to Northern Ireland following a similar pattern to the UK.

On Thursday the Northern Ireland Research and Statistic’s Agency released data showing a 15.5 per cent rebound in the north’s economy over July to September.

But Dr Birnie said: “Given that Covid restrictions applied for most of the final 10 or so weeks of 2020, the likelihood is that UK and Northern Ireland will have displayed negative growth in the final three months of last year.

“The same will, alas, probably apply in this first quarter of 2021.”

The economist said when held up against G20 countries, Northern Ireland’s economic performance in 2020 had been “disturbing”.

But he said the vaccination programme has to date outperformed most countries, offering a glimmer of hope.

“So far only three other countries, Israel, Bahrain and UAE, have exceeded the UK’s vaccination rate for Covid and Northern Ireland has an even higher rate than the UK average. Let’s maintain that achievement to make 2021 a better year,” he added.

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