The Executive’s move to impose a fortnight of lockdown following six weeks of Covid-19 restrictions puts up to 40,000 jobs at risk in Northern Ireland, an economist has said.
usiness reacted with dismay to the timing of the decision by ministers after an earlier agreement had allowed cafes to open on Friday and bars, restaurants and hotels to open next Friday.
The claimant count of people claiming unemployment benefits doubled after lockdown measures from March onwards to hit around 60,000.
Gareth Hetherington, an economist and director at the Ulster University economic policy centre, said he feared levels could soar again. This week, clothing retailer Peacocks went into administration, putting the jobs of workers at its 18 NI stores at risk.
Mr Hetherington said the Executive was failing to take a strategic approach to the virus but was instead reacting to it.
“Recent survey evidence has indicated that one in seven firms are not confident they will still be in business in three months and that increases to one in three firms in the hospitality sector.
“The sectors most impacted by the latest lockdown, namely retail, hospitality and close contact services employed over 225,000 people in Northern Ireland before Covid, and every week that passes sees the closure of more household-name companies.
“The claimant count doubled to 60,000 following the first lockdown, but with the prospect of this continued cycle of restrictions an increase to over 100,000 next year is not a worst-case scenario.”
Darren Gardiner, the co-owner of Ground Espresso, a chain of 30 cafes, said it was “insane” that he would have to close again next Friday after just a week.
He was preparing to open around 25 on Friday. “We’ve already ordered tens of thousands of pounds worth of stock, rota’d dozens and dozens of staff and taken them off furlough.
“In the first lockdown we disposed of £80,000 worth of stock, even though we did give away so much, too.
“We normally go through thousands of mince pies in a normal run-up to Christmas and in August and September, so we based our requirements on what we would have estimated our sales to be, not thinking we’d have a huge two-week gap in December trading.
“We’ve spent considerable amounts of time with our suppliers and produced an awful lot of food for stores. We’ll have no choice but to throw out in excess of £50,000 of stock, even after what we give away to charity and loyal customers while we close on Friday.”
Brian Donaldson, the chief executive of forecourt retailer Maxol – which has 237 units in Ireland, including 100 in NI – said engagement with businesses had been poor.
“The communications from the Executive have been disappointing and there’s a real disconnect. I’ve got to compare it with the engagement we have had with the southern government, which has been very open… as long as you are part of the conversation, at least you feel are you are being listened to and have a part to play.”
As Retail Ireland chairman, he said he had held “open conversations” with Business, Employment and Retail Minister Damien English, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe and the Tanaiste Leo Varadkar.