Commenting on the announcement by the Northern Ireland Executive of further restrictions on businesses in the region, Belfast Chamber Chief Executive Simon Hamilton said, “No one underestimates the challenge facing the Executive in suppressing the spread of COVID-19, but their decision to introduce what is tantamount to another lockdown for businesses across a range of sectors will, as we have warned on numerous occasions, have a cataclysmic effect on the local economy and result in countless job losses.  If this outcome represents a compromise, then I would shudder to think what some Ministers wanted to introduce.

Singling out the hospitality sector, in particular, doesn’t just damage that industry.  It has a knock-on effect to other sectors too who supply into hospitality or rely on it for footfall.  Thousands of people are employed in hospitality businesses in Belfast and tens of thousands more across the region. Those people and their employers are now facing a very bleak future.  We have yet to see how these restrictions in any way relate to the risk of transmission in hospitality settings and this feels like a long way away from the First Minister telling us a few weeks ago that business was not the villain.

It is hard to understate how devastating these decisions are for people who have devoted their lives to turning their dreams into a business. Opening any business, large or small, in every sector, takes talent and passion and a huge amount of courage and determination. By once again plunging businesses back into a lockdown it won’t just damage those sectors but could well herald their demise.

Serious questions remain about the sufficiency of the financial support on offer to affected businesses.  Furthermore, there is no assistance on offer for those businesses who aren’t forced to close down but are nonetheless impacted.  Quite clearly, whatever package the Executive puts together will be nowhere near the quantum of earlier this year and be narrow and restrictive. And still, the self-employed and arts, culture and events are forgotten.

Businesses are also deeply worried that there is the very real risk that this four week lockdown could become five weeks or six weeks or more.  What assurance do we have that this will be four weeks and no more? And what, crucially, is the Executive’s exit strategy to stop us entering into an endless cycle of shutdowns?

We at Belfast Chamber fully appreciate that the pandemic has taken a turn for the worse and that action which balances lives and livelihoods is needed but, put quite simply, without extensive financial support and no guarantee of an extension or a repetition, the Executive have today introduced not a circuit breaker but an economy breaker”.