COVID-19 and the measures designed to tackle it have had dramatic effects on how we live, work and do business across the globe. The pandemic has been a twin crisis, a health and an economic crisis inextricably rolled into one. 2020 has exposed every person and every business in Northern Ireland to that double jeopardy.
Whilst the pandemic is far from over and many industries continue to suffer the effects of restrictions, we strongly believe it is time to start planning our economy’s recovery strategy. NI Chamber’s priority is a safe and managed economic recovery, one that supports enterprises and employees to work in the new environment, alongside COVID-19 and Brexit.
The region faces a range of challenges, many of which are not new – skills shortages, an infrastructure deficit, digitisation, protecting our environment, an aging population and low levels of innovation. When combined, these factors result in lower levels of competitiveness, economic growth and standards of living. At a critical juncture, the recommendations within our recently published ‘Thrive’ document seek to start addressing those challenges with practical and achievable recommendations
There is opportunity in every crisis and COVID-19 is no different. Since its onset, air quality improved markedly, collaboration increased across society, community bonds became stronger and an appreciation for workers at all levels became evident.
‘Thrive’ is an action plan which focuses on how we can start the economic recovery in Northern Ireland and ensure that enterprises are well placed to grasp new opportunities as they occur.
In researching and compiling Thrive, NI Chamber has been working alongside some of Northern Ireland’s leading economists. We are grateful for the input of Richard Johnston from Ulster University’s Economic Policy Centre, supported by Neil Gibson, Chief Economist at EY Ireland and Ashleen Feeney, Partner at KPMG. Its publication has also been supported by NI Chamber’s Communications Partner, BT.
‘Thrive’ identifies catalysts in five areas: Trade; Succeeding Safely; Skills; Environment and Resilience and Reliability.
On trade, Thrive calls for the best Brexit possible, asking UK and Irish governments to collaborate with the EU to secure a trade deal that minimises frictions and costs, providing clarity on state aid and access to export markets and Great Britain. It calls for support to develop digital trade, including the development of digital sales platforms linking into global networks. It also asks for expert representation in global markets, assisting businesses here to identify new international customers.
In relation to target markets, the report states that air connectivity to key business hubs in Europe, the US and Asia should be an Executive priority. It calls on the UK government to support regional accessibility in order to level up NI’s economic performance.
Whilst news on the development of a vaccine is encouraging, businesses and employees are resigned to the fact that they must live and work with COVID-19 for the foreseeable future. Our report makes recommendations to enable businesses to succeed safely in this environment. This includes the need for rapid decision making, based on evidence which is clearly communicated and swiftly implemented.
To achieve the wider reforms necessary, Thrive stresses the need for a new Programme for Government, which focuses on the next two decades, rather than a short term plan. Progressive public sector procurement must be part of the recovery strategy, highlighting in particular the need for greater transparency and efficiency.
The expected digitalization of work has been rapidly accelerated. Demand for systems skills such as programing and robotics increased as consumers moved online. Thrive stresses the need to amend the curriculum for subjects at all levels to include ‘systems skills’ such as ICT and data analytics alongside ‘human skills’ like empathy and strategy. It also highlights the need to invest in languages to support international trade, focusing most on those used in growing economies like Asia. The report also stresses the need to train young people in disrupted industries like hospitality and tourism, so that as these sectors recover, a skills pipeline to support their growth exists.
A competitive, sustainable and reliable energy infrastructure is required to meet the current and future needs of society. To support the transition to net zero by 2050, Thrive reiterates the need to invest in high quality digital infrastructure and rapidly progress projects like the North South Interconnector. The report suggests that enterprise support should be directed toward fuel switching, on-site generation and cost effective solutions for enterprise, including waste management and electric vehicles.
Resilience & Reliability
Rapid changes in our working patterns have led to significantly increased demand on the region’s digital infrastructure. Thanks to public and private sector investment, it has proven to be mostly fit for purpose, enabling large swathes of the population to work from home. As planning for recovery begins, Thrive stresses the need to assess increased demands on the physical infrastructure as people return to work including roads, rail, sea, air, waste and energy.
Working in partnership
These recommendations have already been shared with policy makers and NI Chamber has begun the process of engaging with Ministers about the report.
As they have done throughout the pandemic, business people are ready and willing to work collaboratively with the public, private, academic and voluntary sectors to build back a thriving economy for all. Using Thrive as a guide, we call on the UK and Irish governments, the EU, the NI Executive and local authorities, academia and the voluntary sector to work together – and with us – to make a better future a reality.
Download a full copy of the Thrive report here.