By their very nature, business owners and entrepreneurs are pragmatic and flexible, ready and able to react to the unforeseen and unexpected. This has been proven time and time again over the past 12 months as businesses have dealt with the pandemic. However, at this crucial moment they require certainty, clarity, and continued support.
The Executive’s recent Pathway out of Restrictions, published at the start of March, was of no benefit to the business community, succeeding only in uniting all corners of society in their criticism of the document, and leaving many frustrated. Whilst our Ministers often talk about being led by the data, the lack of dates and targets for the timely reopening of the economy has pushed many owners to the brink, questioning the viability of their business if they miss the Spring/Summer trading season.
With Covid cases dropping, the pressure on our health service easing, the amazing roll-out of the vaccine, and the opening of our first mass vaccination centre just this week, now is the time to begin the conversation in earnest on returning to some form of normality.
Worryingly, the latest figures show that 106,000 people across Northern Ireland are currently on furlough and, sadly, it may be the case that many of these jobs will be lost when the scheme tapers off in the summer. As we move beyond Easter and ahead of the 15 April review of the current restrictions, the Executive needs to urgently put in place a proper timetable for the reopening of our economy and wider society, to protect jobs, livelihoods, and small businesses.
Earlier this week, over 400 businesses from all four corners of Northern Ireland, from every sector and industry across our economy, wrote to the First and deputy First Ministers calling on the Executive to let business “begin the road to recovery, secure jobs and start to rebuild our economy”. This level of consensus across the business community is unprecedented and reveals the strength of feeling right now. Without proper planning and preparation, businesses can’t possibly be expected to open their doors and hit the ground running in the coming months.
England, Wales, and Scotland have all recently made moves to reopen large swathes of their economy by the middle of April, giving hope to hospitality business, retailers, gyms and leisure, and even close-contact services. By giving businesses much more of a lead-in time and allowing them to trade for longer, it gives them time to prepare their premises, rebuild their cash reserves, and protect more jobs in the process.
Frustratingly, Northern Ireland is being left behind yet again. A lack of bravery and courage is holding us back. Even a broad indication of reopening is preferable to being kept in the dark. Something to strive for is better than sitting on our hands and doing nothing. Target dates and milestones give our businesses and wider society something to work towards but, crucially, they also generate hope and optimism for the future, signalling that the end is in sight.
It’s time for the Executive to work closely with business, tell us what we need to do to reopen, and when we can expect this to happen. To guarantee success, we need consumer confidence, a strong ‘shop local’ message, and continued support from the Executive.