Covid-19: Time to rebuild economy as restrictions ease, says Dodds

image copyrightPacemaker
image captionShoppers will return to streets when all retailers in Northern Ireland can reopen at the end of April

Northern Ireland can begin rebuilding its economy under plans to ease Covid-19 restrictions from next week, Economy Minister Diane Dodds has said.

On Thursday the Stormont executive agreed reopening dates for some sectors, including hairdressers, non-essential retail and hospitality.

The current lockdown has been in place for more than 100 days in a bid to curb the spread of coronavirus.

Mrs Dodds said precautions would still be needed to reopen businesses safely.

"But it does mean we can get on with opening our economy, recovering our economy," she told BBC News NI's The View programme.

She said growing the economy would help to mitigate the fallout from the pandemic, including a potentially huge spike in unemployment.

The announcement has received a cautious welcome from businesses.

Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey told The View she was glad the executive had reached consensus.

"There was no dissent around the table - it [was] a good day to give hope to the public," she said.

'Starting from a fresh sheet'

Peter McCleery, who runs a cafe in Comber, County Down, said that preparing to resume trade would be like opening a new business.

The cafe has no outdoor space so it is due to open on 24 May, several weeks after hospitality businesses that have outdoor facilities.

image copyrightReuters
image captionShutters are set be lifted from the doors of pubs in Northern Ireland for the first time this year

"Even with those dates we have to plan ahead and recruit staff and train staff," he told BBC Radio Ulster's Good Morning Ulster programme.

"We're starting again from a fresh sheet - we're looking forward to it."

The owner of a County Armagh hotel situated a short distance from the Irish border said he was concerned that business that would have to deal with the consequences of the differing restrictions in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Jason Foody said it was not the job of his hotel staff "to police the roads and people that come through our door".

The Republic of Ireland has recently lifted the 5km (three miles) travel limit that applied under its highest level of restrictions.

image copyrightPacemaker
image captionBusiness owners have been busy preparing their premises for reopening

Mr Foody said: "Previously if we were seeing [people with] addresses... from areas that shouldn't have travelled we were saying it to them but people have to travel for different reasons too and if it's for essential reasons you can't stop them.

He said the hotel was "getting a huge amount of calls" from people in the Republic of Ireland who were wanting to book a stay.

'Anxiety about finances'

Jules Stothard, who owns a pub in Dromara, County Down, said her business had been open for about three months over the past 13 months.

She would be "ecstatic" to see her customers again but had a "bit of anxiety about the financial side".

"We are grateful to the government for the grant but every penny we have had has gone," she said.

"We were so ecstatic that we could open again but then reality strikes - we won't have the customers at the capacity to sustain our business without help."

image copyrightEPA
image captionOutdoor dining and drinking at cafes and bars will be allowed from 30 April

Tourist attractions also face challenges when they reopen - the Marble Arch Caves in County Fermanagh will have reduced capacity for its tours, says its manager Kate McGrath.

"We will get there but need to clarify bubble numbers," she added.

Proposed dates leaked to the media on Thursday had suggested outdoor hospitality for pubs would have to wait until 10 May before being allowed to welcome back customers, with indoor venues not reopening before 1 June.

However, Mrs Dodds had raised concerns in a letter to the first and deputy first ministers about the proposed dates, saying it was her preference for unlicensed premises to open earlier, on 23 April, followed later by licenced premises.

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