Belfast Chamber calls on executive to give retailers time to prepare to reopen safely

Belfast Chamber has written to the First Minister and deputy First Minister calling on time to give non-essential retailers sufficient time to allow them to prepare properly for reopening.

With England working towards a date of 1 June for non-essential retail to reopen and Ireland aiming for 8 June, the organisation which represents many of Belfast city centre’s retailers has asked the Executive to indicate to retailers when the same might happen in Northern Ireland.

Commenting, Belfast Chamber Chief Executive Simon Hamilton said, “Non-essential retailers have now been closed for over 2 months.  Easily over 90% of staff have been furloughed.  We’ve all seen images on our television screens of once bustling shopping streets in Belfast city centre almost completely empty.  Plans have been put in place by many retailers to make their stores safe for staff and customers.  There is a real keenness to start trading again but retailers in Northern Ireland are at a disadvantage compared to their counterparts in England and Ireland who both have set indicative timings for the reopening of non-essential retail.  

With the Executive stating that shops can open again at Step 2 on their roadmap and the indicative dates for England and Ireland just days away, Belfast Chamber believes that it is imperative that the Executive give retailers here sufficient time to prepare for reopening.

Retailers have done the risk assessments required of them and have developed plans to reopen safely but it will take a significant amount of time to implement those plans.  This will include reconfiguring store layouts, installing queuing systems, erecting signage, putting screens in place, implementing systems for holding returned stock and reactivating facilities management systems which have lay dormant for more than 2 months.  With so many staff on furlough, this already difficult task becomes even more of an undertaking for retailers.  Furthermore, staff themselves will also require additional training regarding their own safety and the procedures that will have to be put in place to ensure customer safety.

Retailers are keen to open and want to play their part in returning our region to some sense of normality by trading again, however only when they are completely satisfied that they can do safely for both their teams and their customers. Without a signal or a sense of when we might move to Step 2 for non-essential retail, as stores have in England and the Republic of Ireland, then local retailers are, to put it bluntly, operating, at present, in a vacuum compared to their colleagues elsewhere. 

Belfast Chamber has been working very closely with Belfast City Council and others to ensure that the city centre is a safe place for people to return to. If the Executive could outline if we are on course to move to Step 2 for retail and indicate when they expect that to happen then it would allow retailers to start implementing those plans that they have been working on. 

 We all want to get this economy going again and get staff safely back to work but without some sense of when that will be permitted, retailers are unable to do the work they need to do that will allow them to start trading again as soon as they are allowed”.