Belfast Chamber have implored the Northern Ireland Executive to ‘breathe some life’ back into city and town centres like Belfast by allowing businesses closed down by the Executive’s latest set of lockdown restrictions after the city experienced another week with footfall collapsing to be allowed to reopen later this week.

The organisation, which represents around 600 businesses across Belfast, has stressed the importance of getting businesses back open again this week and everyone trading again properly by the end of November so that businesses can capitalise as best they can on the all-important Christmas period.

Commenting, Belfast Chamber Chief Executive Simon Hamilton said, “At the end of this week, businesses in Belfast would ordinarily have been looking forward to the traditional Christmas lights switch-on event and the commencement of the Christmas market which would kick start the busy festive trading period.  Instead, businesses face huge uncertainty and the real prospect of closure and a serious number of job losses.

The sad fact is that over the last number of weeks, we have witnessed city centre stores that are, quite simply, suffering a slow death. Footfall is down by in excess of 50% year on year at what ought to be one of the busiest trading periods of the year.  That’s a pretty awful statistic but there is a very human aspect too. It is heart-breaking to listen to people who have had the courage to follow their dream and set up a business tell you this week that they took £10 all day or didn’t see a customer until 3pm.  That is the reality of the current lockdown restrictions. 

Belfast Chamber has consistently said that there is a symbiotic relationship between the sectors of our city’s economy, and we are seeing that fact for real these past few weeks.  The absence of cafes, coffee shops, pubs, restaurants, barbers, hairdressers, beauticians and other footfall driving businesses is seriously impacting on the overall experience for those visiting city and town centres like Belfast. If someone can’t take the weight off their feet and refuel in one of our coffee shops, for example, or grab lunch in a pub or restaurant, then it’s clear that many are choosing not to come into the city centre at all.  Similarly, close contact retailers bring people into the city centre and on to our arterial routes and with them shut, we are seeing trade in other sectors fall significantly.  If at least some life isn’t breathed back into the city centre later this week, then I worry not only for those forced to remain closed but also those who can still trade but also those who can still trade but have decreasing numbers of people to trade. 

Without barbers and hairdressers and beauticians reopen, without coffee shops and cafes and restaurants trading again, then I am concerned what this Christmas will mean for many retailers. There is a real danger that if we don’t restore some of that experience then this is going to be the best Christmas present ever for the online retail giants. What I seriously see is a city centre that is on the edge with many businesses and their staff facing a dire future.  What the Executive decides this week will either kill off city and town centres or give them a fighting chance.

Belfast Chamber has had some positive engagement in recent days with Ministers and we would encourage the work that has been ongoing to continue and intensify as we seek solutions to the serious challenges we face in protecting lives and protecting livelihoods.  We have presented a range of ideas that would, if implemented, permit the safe reopening of businesses, and allow them to stay open.  We especially encourage the Executive to engage with our colleagues at Hospitality Ulster who I know have been working intensively to get the sector trading again.

The Executive faces a crucial decision this week.  Businesses recognise the unenviable task that Ministers have. They appreciate that the virus is still very much amongst us and that our health service is under inordinate pressure.  And they know that we all have a part to play in combating the coronavirus.  However, the blanket extension to the current restrictions favoured by some will do untold damage to jobs and, as we have seen from the Executive’s own evidence, disproportionately impact on the poorest in our society and women.  Working together, Belfast Chamber believes that a sensible solution is possible that breathes life back into cities like Belfast but does not damage our efforts in suppressing the spread of COVID-19”.