Sadly, I need to open this briefing by announcing that three more deaths from COVID-19 were announced today. Our thoughts are with their family and friends.
It is always a sobering reminder of the health impact of this pandemic on our community.
People are aware of how coronavirus has had a devastating impact on our economy too. Each month of shutdown has been akin to a large recession. And of course as we all know the Department of Health also says there are significant health and wellbeing consequences of lockdown.
The longer we are unable to do business and people are kept away from work, the greater the risk of long-term damage.
My message has been that we need to support business to get through the initial phase of lockdown, but that we must now urgently plot a course out of lockdown and get businesses open again, in a safe, staged and sensible manner.
So far we have distributed over £280million in grants to businesses. This vital financial support has helped to save many tens of thousands of businesses the length and breadth of Northern Ireland.
The £40million micro-businesses fund has also opened to applications.
It will provide much-needed support to businesses and eligible social enterprises which have so far been unable to access other regional and national coronavirus support measures.
Over 2,000 applications have been submitted to the fund to date.
In total, over 40,000 businesses in Northern Ireland will have been eligible to apply for support under all of the Northern Ireland COVID-19 grant schemes. Many businesses have also received from UK-wide scheme and rates relief has also been a significant support factor.
As well as supporting businesses in the here and now, we also must plan for their future.
Yesterday, I presented an economic recovery paper to my Executive colleagues which complements the Executive’s five-stage plan to come out of lockdown.
‘Charting a course for the economy – our first steps’ is the first in a series of publications my department is working on. This document provides detail on the state of the economy and impact of the economic shock, provides some international context and comparators, and outlines the guiding principles for how we should restart our economy.
Decisions taken by the Executive this week demonstrate that we are now beginning to see an easement of restrictions. As frustrating as it is for many, progress will be gradual and in stages.
As we move towards further relaxation, key Executive messaging will also focus on two themes from now on - Stay Safe, Save Lives and Work Safe, Save Lives.
I would stress that those who can work at home should continue to do so.
Many of our construction and manufacturing business have already returned to safe workplaces.
Some firms have already adapted their working practices and protocols or are preparing to do so, particularly in wider manufacturing and food production sectors.
The Engagement Forum, chaired by the Labour Relations Agency, has also published workplace safety guidance to help employers, employees and the self-employed understand how to work safely during the pandemic.
I have recommended a phased return for the retail sector.
It has been provisionally agreed to extend Step 1’s relaxation of the restrictions on garden centres from 8 June to include other outdoor non-food retailers such as new and used car dealerships and large machinery retailers.
We also have provisional agreement from 8 June to open non-food retail with lower frequency retail activities and larger store areas such as those selling household electrical appliances, mobile phones and furniture stores. This would only apply where outlets have direct street access or direct access within a retail park.
The expert scientific advice is that the risk of the virus spreading outdoors is much less significant than indoors.
Physical distancing must be maintained. But people must also use common sense. Businesses will have already been planning for reopening and will have given consideration on how they can restrict how many customers are in a store, how to manage the flow of customers when in the store and how to keep staff and customers safe when browsing or purchasing something.
For this, location is important.
Social distancing needs to be manageable in the public spaces outside of stores and not just inside.
Store workers may need to assist in maintaining social distancing and encouraging good hygiene practices upon entry and then inside the stores.
This morning I had a very positive engagement - through the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium - with some of our leading national retailers. Their desire to return to normal - but safe - trading as soon as possible is clear. I share this desire.
A coordinated approach across the Executive will be required to help our businesses get back up and running and workplaces operating safely.
Transport will be required for people to get to work, and people will need to feel safe to use it.
Schools and childcare arrangements will support the process for getting people back to work.
And public spaces – for example car parks and high streets – will need to be made as safe as possible.
The Department for the Economy is fully committed to working with the lead departments in these areas to ensure the steps we are taking in getting the economy moving again are in lockstep with arrangements for transport, education, childcare and public spaces.
If the R-rate is controlled, further reopening within the retail sector can be considered by the Executive over the next few weeks.
At every stage the Department will work with the Minister for Health to ensure the steps being taken fit in with the latest scientific advice.
Other papers on our economic recovery will be published by my Department in the near future.
We will outline how vulnerable but viable businesses will be supported through the next phases of the pandemic.
We will examine support for the unemployed to retrain and upskill.
And we will state how we plan to deliver on the commitment for a strong, competitive and regionally balanced economy in these challenging times.
At every stage we will be working to achieve buy-in from all sections of society.
We must look for consensus in emerging from lockdown, just as we sought it in going into lockdown.
Our tourism industry is also extremely important and needs our attention.
We have set up a Tourism Recovery Working Group and I chair its steering group.
As we begin to emerge from the shadow of COVID-19 we will begin to see our tourism and hospitality businesses open up again.
This will represent an important step on the road to eventual, and much needed, normality.
The Executive agreed yesterday that hotels can now take advance bookings in preparation for when they can accept guests. I understand the need for an indicative date on when they can open. I understand the need for businesses to bring staff back and train them prior to opening. I have raised my concerns that our hotels are at a disadvantage compared to competitors in the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain who have started taking booking.
Ministers have agreed to give this matter further consideration and provide an update early next week. This along with the position of caravan sites, B & Bs and hospitality in general are of the utmost concern.
Last week, I spoke with the Republic’s Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Shane Ross. Yesterday I spoke with airlines, tour organisers and travel agents from the US on what their customers are saying about when they would feel safe to begin international travel again, and what they expect in terms of safety precautions when they get here.
We discussed the need to develop a new tourism plan that takes account of the marketplace realities and which considers the different scenarios in which we might be operating.
As an Executive we are working hard to manage the recovery. We also rely on support from the public to behave responsibly and use common sense to manage the safety of themselves and others around them
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