Northern Ireland news

Business bodies round on Executive over lack of clarity in pathway paper out of lockdown

Business groups have criticised the Executive's pathway plan for offering no timeline for opening. Picture by Mal McCann.
Ryan McAleer

THE Executive’s blueprint for reopening the economy has been greeted with frustration and disappointment from business bodies for failing to provide certainty and dates to facilitate proper planning.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill was adamant yesterday that progression through the five stages of the nine separate pathways could only happen in accordance with the health, community and economic data.

While a timeline was absent from the ‘pathway out of restrictions’ paper, the Executive confirmed it will review potential relaxations on March 16, April 15, May 13 and June 10.

The Deputy First Minister suggested any progression to the limited freedoms contained in stage two, such as reopening of unlicensed cafés, is unlikely until after Easter.

Stage three of the plan will see all non-essential retail reopen, with hair dressers and close contact services allowed to operate under restrictions. Stage three will also allow licensed restaurants to operate table service.

But wet pubs, cinemas and seated venues will have to wait until stage four.

Hotels, B&Bs, caravans sites and guest houses get the go-ahead at stage three, albeit with mitigations in place.

Read More: Arlene Foster – This lockdown will be the last for Northern Ireland

Phased return to on-site work can also begin at stage three, along with seminars and meetings. But conferences must wait until stage four.

Stage five would ultimately see near the full relaxation of restrictions, with nightclubs reopening, bar service returning, workplaces fully reopen and the return of live entertainment in hospitality venues.

But with Michelle O’Neill admitting that each pathway could move at different speeds, business groups have criticised the lack of certainty.

Tina McKenzie of the north’s largest business network, the Federation of Small Businesses said: “The risk is that we simply create a messy patchwork of restrictions which are difficult to comprehend and lose public confidence and cooperation.

“While we are told decision-making will be based on evidence, the document offers little transparency regarding the targets that need to be achieved to trigger next steps; instead, we are told that the ‘R’ rate will be a guiding principle.”

Retail NI chief executive Glyn Roberts said it had fallen well short of what businesses require.

“It lacks detail, contains vague criteria for moving between the steps/phases and gives no certainty for retailers to plan ahead for reopening,” he said.

“Accepting that exact dates were not going to be in the document, the very least that could have been included should have been broad timelines to give retailers some idea of the next steps.”

Colin Neill of Hospitality Ulster expressed disappointment at the absence of a timeline and the lack of any additional support package.

“We are really frustrated that this pathway shows no dates whatsoever and once again singles out our traditional pubs for extended closure,” he said.

“How are our pubs supposed to survive, and the industry plan for the re-emergence of the entire sector?”

Former Economy Minister Simon Hamilton, now chief executive of Belfast Chamber, said that while the Executive had agreed on a route to reopening the economy, he said: “The truth is, none of us know when this journey will actually start or how long it will take.

“Each step will, no doubt, be subject to Executive wrangling with businesses unable to plan properly. It is not too harsh to say that as far as offering both hope and certainty, this falls far short.”

The president of Derry Chamber, Dawn McLaughlin echoed the disappointment of her Belfast counterpart. She said the document offered little cause for optimism or certainty for the coming weeks and months ahead.

“We understand that the Executive consistently said it would be guided by the data, not dates, but businesses still need to be given a firm indication of when they can expect to reopen and start trading again,” she said.

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