The coronavirus pandemic has been a seismic shock to the economy – an unprecedented situation in both scale and impact. What we now understand is that we will not be going back to “business as usual” any time soon. First, we will have to learn to live and work in a ‘new normal’ as restrictions ease but the threat of the virus remains. Whilst it may take more time than initially imagined to fully re-open our society and economy, we must meet this challenge with ingenuity and resilience.
As President of Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry, I have been struck by the imaginative and selfless way that NI Chamber businesses have come together with the public and third sectors to support their communities, the NHS and each other. From switching production to hand sanitiser, to sourcing and donating personal protective equipment (PPE) to local NHS Trusts, businesses in Northern Ireland have gone out of their way to contribute to the national effort to combat this virus.
We also appreciate that the Government has acted quickly to provide support to businesses through these difficult times, delivering cash to firms on the ground through loans, grants and the Job Retention Scheme. Government must now ensure these schemes continue to evolve to support a phased restart of the economy, enabling businesses to survive through this crisis and thrive in the future.
In the coming days Stormont and Westminster will be discussing their own pathways out of lockdown and we wait to see whether they follow a similar route to that of Ireland’s published last Friday evening. What we do know is that the fight against the virus must remain the top priority, but the planning and communication of a carefully phased approach to lifting lockdown must begin immediately if we are to harness the public health and economic benefits, both now and in the future.
Therefore it is essential that the leaders across the United Kingdom come together with a coordinated approach – including consistent guidance across all regions and nations – and pay close attention to the interdependencies between private and public sector, and within supply chains. For example, economic impact must be a consideration when deciding how to phase the reopening of schools.
Our colleagues at the British Chambers of Commerce have suggested the journey ahead as having three phases:
- Restart: a phased reopening of the economy
- Rebuild: building resilience for firms and households
- Renew: returning to prosperity and growth
They presented a number of ideas to the Prime Minister at the weekend, drawing on the experience of business communities throughout the UK and around the world – including those in countries that are easing their lockdowns and have supported members through other, major natural disasters.
Fundamental prerequisites to beginning this journey include mass testing and contact tracing; clear decisions and guidance on what PPE is needed in workplaces; and proactive steps to ensure adequate supply of PPE to both the health service and to businesses where necessary. Some of our businesses are already deep into this process.
The UK is an open economy. Global perceptions of its restart strategy – and its ability to reopen transport and trade links – are critical. The strategy must be clearly communicated to international partners and give them confidence to resume cross-border travel and commerce.
These are challenging times, but NI Chamber businesses stand ready to work with government – and support communities – through the journey ahead.