Stormont Executive must publish roadmap to recovery like other devolved nations have done

Most readers will know that I wouldn’t be prone to citing Vladimir Lenin but his famous quote that "there are decades where nothing happens and there are weeks where decades happen" is as good a description of the past 12 months as you will find.

Life always has a way of surprising us, as we know all too well in this part of the world, but at the beginning of 2020, if someone had said that over the course of the following year, most shops, pubs, cafes, restaurants and hotels would be closed, the Government would pay the wages of nearly 9 million UK workers and millions more would abandon their offices and work from their own homes, we would have most likely laughed at such a suggestion.

When we are in the middle of a pandemic, most people will understand why public health takes precedence but, the longer this situation continues and the more that business owners and their staff bear the brunt of the Executive’s lockdown restrictions, then the greater concerned I am at the long-term impact not just on jobs and the economy but the people who work in our retail, hospitality and other sectors who have been in the eye of the storm.

Every day, I speak to Belfast Chamber members who are struggling, anxious and worried about the businesses they’ve spent a lifetime building up and the jobs of the people they employ.  In our latest survey of businesses in Belfast, we found that almost 2/3 were somewhat concerned or very concerned about the future of their business. That is deeply troubling.

Lots of business owners that I speak with are grappling with exceptionally stressful situations. Few of us can really appreciate what it is like to be in a situation where your shop is closed down, stock for the new season which you will have to pay for has arrived but you can’t sell it and the Executive won’t even let you offer a click and collect service.  In tandem you have to work out if you can afford to pay the costs of furloughing your staff, all the while watching debt that you’ve borrowed to keep your business afloat mount up.

Throughout the crisis created by COVID-19, some have sought to present the choices facing society in a pretty basic, puerile even, health versus the economy way. No one should actually deny that this is an interlinked health and economic emergency with long term impacts on jobs, working people and the wider economy. And whilst we have all been eternally grateful to NHS workers and the heroics they have performed on our behalf, society’s response to COVID-19 wouldn’t have been as effective were it not also for the efforts of the private sector too.

When there was a shortage of PPE, it was manufacturers who pivoted and started producing things like masks. Who kept people fed? It was our agri-foods sector and essential retailers.  And who developed a vaccine in record time? It was private sector pharmaceutical companies working in concert with government.

Put simply, this pandemic has shown that one sector isn’t better than the other.  We have seen quite starkly that we need businesses, charities and the public sector working together to succeed in situations like this and we will need them all even more as we move towards recovery.

This past week, the Economy Minister Diane Dodds published her Economic Recovery Action Plan.  As well as including important initiatives like the High Streets Stimulus Scheme, it also rightly focuses on building a greener economy and encouraging innovation.  We need the wider Executive to embrace this plan, fund it and, most importantly of all, use it to begin focusing on recovery.

The first crucial step in that direction is, of course, for the Executive to set out a clear and unequivocal reopening plan that puts us all on a path back to some semblance of normality.  We have all been amazed at the huge success in the roll out of the vaccination programme and, thankfully, hospitalisation rates and deaths are heading in the right direction and that all surely allows the Executive to replicate what we have seen announced in England, Scotland and Wales in recent days.

Rebuilding our economy will be a long, hard journey but it begins, hopefully this week, with the Executive charting a course out of lockdown and towards recovery. They should publish a roadmap to reopening not because Boris Johnson or Nicola Sturgeon or Mark Drakeford has done it, but because it is the right thing to do for Northern Ireland. Just last week, the deputy First Minister told the Assembly that the Executive “very much want to give the public the route map and how we’re going to reverse out of the current restrictive measures which we have in place”. Let’s hope that she and her fellow Ministers do just that. People and businesses across the region have made huge sacrifices.  They now need the Executive to give them some hope that their efforts have paid off and that better days are ahead.