Hopes Grow The Better Days For People Here Really Are Closer Than Ever

It was interesting to compare notes about our coronavirus exit framework with colleagues from Scotland, Wales and England last week.  Their view was that a timetable based on reaching goals was more sensible than one based on indicative dates. It’s hard to know. Northern Ireland is also the only part of the United Kingdom not to have some indicative dates of when progress is projected to occur.

Executive ministers are quite right to be concerned about another lockdown that could result in even more damage being inflicted on society and the economy. We all share this concern. No-one wishes to see the sacrifices of the past year being squandered by premature measures especially as a result of political pressure. 

The pandemic has presented the five-party coalition Executive with unprecedented challenges which ministers and advisers, especially medical experts, have generally handled very well. They’ve been operating in largely unchartered territory. They deserve great credit for their dedication, commitment, skills and leadership to overall community wellbeing. 

The Executive’s commitment to economic recovery has also been encouraging, and a number of important initiatives have been taken in support of key sectors. Of course, I’d wish to see much more done to ensure the survival of our hospitality sector which is such an important part of the local economy. 

The endeavours of the industry to ensure the safety of customers and employees merits even greater recognition and financial support. As I wrote last week, hospitality can drive the regeneration of our city and town centres which have been under pressure for many years and been devastated during this awful pandemic. 

Hospitality will draw people back into city and town centres and enhance their attractiveness when the lockdown is eventually lifted. Strong recovery in hospitality is also essential to support tourism in the aftermath of the lockdowns. While it’s likely to be a couple of years before tourism returns to the pre-pandemic position, the sector requires greater investment now. A vibrant hospitality sector also benefits the overall food and farming industry.

Food production has developed in many sectors during the pandemic in ‘feeding the nation’. In Food NI, we’ve been impressed by the resilience of our companies and their focus on coming up with new ideas for consumers. The food industry is poised for further growth here and in key markets such as Great Britain and Ireland. 

There were also several large and small companies showing products – with Invest NI –  at the big Gulfood show in Dubai last month. They all did very well. There’s a strong appetite with the food industry for further growth in Great Britain, Ireland and global markets. This ambitious industry would clearly benefit from greater support for marketing its original products abroad when the pandemic ends. 

It’s also important to recognise the six local distilleries winning at last month’s prestigious World Gin Awards, recognition which will be beneficial as they seek global sales. They were: Belfast Distillery; Boatyard; Echlinville; Killowen; Symphonia; and Wild Atlantic, many of them Food NI members. In addition, Irish Craft Beverages gained widespread acclaim in the US for its highly innovative Irish Whiskey Dram in a Can, the very first canned Irish Whiskey.

There was also some hope from Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak last week in his Spring Budget. The crucial business rates holiday is being extended to the end of June, and the furlough scheme will now run until the end of September. Help for the self-employed will also continue. In addition, assistance for small businesses will be extended. 

Also important was the chancellor’s decision to maintain pressure on costs such as fuel prices and also to encourage investment. The continuation of the existing low level VAT rate was also an important development for this immensely important industry which will be an engine of recovery. Better days ahead.