With close-contact services resuming today throughout Northern Ireland the sound of shutters opening will be music to the ears of many, particularly hard-pressed business owners and self-employed people who have borne the brunt of the wider measures to protect public health.
Businesses in the Derry and Strabane area know this better than most, having initially gone into a second set of restrictions in early October, before the rest of NI followed suit shortly after. While hairdressers, barbers, beauticians, tanning salons and driving instructors will be looking forward to trading again today, we must also bear in mind that just because the shutters have been lifted does not mean the business is in a healthy financial state.
With no trading income since before Christmas, - and with ongoing costs such as rent and employer furlough contributions still applicable during lockdown - many businesses have taken on debt and will soon have to repay ‘Bounce Back’ loans which have helped them survive the pandemic. Taking all this into consideration, we are calling on Ministers to give businesses a ‘buffer zone’ between their re-opening date and grant support being withdrawn. Tapering support in this manner would allow businesses the best chance of survival and sustaining employment going forward. It is welcome that the Executive has already agreed to continue support for gyms and hospitality as they continue to trade in a restricted capacity, however we believe this principle should be broadened out further. We are concerned to hear reports from members that some Departments are attempting to claw back funding that was legitimately provided to hospitality businesses while they have been trading on a ‘take-away’ only business, which was entirely permissible while receiving support.
With more sections of the economy opening up next Friday, we need to be vigilant about guarding against the virus. It is important that people follow appropriate advice when visiting business premises. Social distancing, Perspex screens, hand sanitising, and good ventilation are all very important measures to keep people safe. Another important weapon in our arsenal against Covid-19 is testing. Currently, access to workplace testing in Northern Ireland lags behind GB, and is limited to businesses with 50 or more employees. Extending the eligibility of those who can access this scheme would be a wise move. Not all small businesses will wish to access this facility, but opening eligibility for those who do is a common-sense approach, particularly as it would allow many more small retailers to fall within its scope. While we now can have comfort that the re-opening dates for next week are set in stone, the indicative date of 24 May for indoor hospitality will be subject to further confirmation. We do not know on what basis the decision to move ahead will be made; whether the Executive will bring forward, or push back, the re-opening of indoor cafes, restaurants and bars.
From the outside looking in, it appeared that the most recent Executive decisions were subject to significant political horse trading between Ministers, rather than being based on detailed discussions about the data. It is vital that businesses in these sectors, which have arguably suffered more than most, get confirmation in good time so they can successfully re-open to customers. Businesses have had enough of knife-edge, last minute decisions and u-turns during this pandemic.
Given that the last time most businesses opened their doors was before Christmas, some may find buying stock more cumbersome following the end of the transition period and the commencement of the new trading arrangements. With extensive new requirements on movements of food between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, hospitality businesses may be particularly impacted. We would urge business owners, if they have not already done so, to make themselves aware of the new trading environment and how it may impact them when they re-open.
After such a difficult twelve months - and to conclude - I would like to wish every success to the businesses re-opening today and next week, across the Derry and Strabane District and beyond.
Roger Pollen is head of FSB in NI.