As Economy Minister, I am all too aware that the COVID-19 pandemic is every bit as much an economic crisis as it is a health one. Whilst we continue to ensure that the safety of the public comes first, it is also important that we ensure people still have jobs to go to once we get through the peak of the virus.
People across Northern Ireland are going through a range of emotions; fear and confusion over the outbreak, anxiety and irritation because of the very necessary restrictions imposed upon all of us, and distress around their livelihoods and how their business or job can survive the massive economic disruption caused from COVID-19.
Whilst the precise timing of when we will see the easing of restrictions is under review, it is my firm belief that you cannot start preparing for the recovery stage too soon. Conversely, there is no doubt you can start preparing too late.
That is why I have established a Tourism Recovery Steering Group, which I will chair, and I am re-establishing the Economic Advisory Group that was previously in place to advise my predecessors. It is my job as Minister to respond to the challenge and reinvigorate the economy.
It is important that we begin to think about when it is appropriate and safe to return to work, which sectors should be prioritised and what procedures should be in place to keep people safe.
Over the past few weeks the Executive had assembled a forum, chaired by the Labour Relations Agency, to examine safe working environments. Their work, in conjunction with advice from PHA / PHE and the Northern Ireland Health and Safety Executive, has been important in helping businesses understand the measures they need to take to protect workers.
I recognise that people want reassurance over their daily commute, office space and general workplace safety, and that a sensible return to work requires flexibility from employers as much as employees.
Many of us have become much more accustomed to working at home, working flexible hours, utilising technology for teleconferences and videoconferences over recent weeks, and this will undoubtedly be a far more regular part of the normal working day from now on.
I hope that this allows a gradual return to work and an easing of restrictions in the coming weeks. The longer we leave restarting the economy the harder the challenge will be.
I have every faith in the ability of business in Northern Ireland to be agile and determined as they take our economy out of the deep freeze. And I, as Minister, stand beside them to offer whatever support I can as we seek to recover from the greatest economic shock in living memory.
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