The past two months have been an incredibly challenging time for all of us.
People have been afraid about the health impact of COVID. Families and friends have been unable to meet. Businesses have been put under incredible pressure. Our economy has been devastated.
The decisions taken by the Executive have been based on the medical and scientific guidance from the CMO and CSO. At all times we have sought to minimise the harm to lives and families. However as we ease the lockdown the Executive faces some big decisions on how to open up the economy and on what guidance we publish in respect of social distancing.
Closing down large sections of the economy has been incredibly difficult, and despite the unprecedented level of financial support made available from both national and devolved government, many businesses will simply fail if they cannot begin trading again soon.
Every month that passes with significant restraints on trading is the equivalent of a large scale recession. Northern Ireland output is at least 25% - 30% down.
I have never tried to sugar coat this. I fear that the recovery will not be as quick as the decline. The greatest help we as an Executive can provide to people is to allow our economy to function again in a manner that protects both staff and customers. On that basis I have requested that the Executive considers allowing the wider retail sector to open up and begin trading again.
As Economy Minister I very much want to see as much of our economy open as possible. Obviously this reopening must be in line with our knowledge about the transmission of the virus and consistent with the medical advice. However, as long as shops, cafes, restaurants, bars and attractions can open up in a safe and sensible way then we should move ahead with that phased reopening.
We have already given hotels the green light to take bookings now and a provisional date for opening. We must also signal that if they are able to introduce additional safety measures then they should also be allowed to open their bars and restaurants too. Likewise we have also said that caravan parks and self-catering accommodation can open, possibly sooner, if we keep the spread of the virus under control.
The Executive has big decisions to make around social distancing. In the United Kingdom, Irish Republic, United States and Switzerland the advice was that people should remain 2m apart, yet in places like Poland, Netherlands and Germany they opted for 1.5m and in Sweden, Finland, Norway and Austria it was the World Health Organisation recommended distance of 1m.
New research funded by the WHO suggests that keeping one meter apart can reduce the likelihood of catching COVID by some 80%.
It is generally accepted that we will be co-existing with this virus for some time.
The difference between 1 and 2 meters will dramatically impact on workplaces such as a production line on a shop floor or a hotel’s ability to hold functions such as wedding receptions, conferences or banquets. Likewise it impacts how many customers a restaurant or bar can safely serve at one time, or how many people can visit a theatre, travel in a bus or sit in a café.
These are the balance of judgements that the Executive has to make. We should of course be guided by the scientific and medical advice on the transmission rate, and take into consideration the impact on the health of the nation and economy.
As we continue to navigate our way out of lockdown we all need to use common sense, take the appropriate precautions and ensure we look after one another.