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Diane Dodds said,

“A year on from the imposition of the first lockdown, people right across Northern Ireland are reflecting on how radically all of our lives have been impacted, none more so than those who have lost loved ones to COVID.

“As Economy Minister, I am all too aware of the impact the pandemic has had on businesses right across Northern Ireland. Some 106,000 people here remain on furlough and my Department has paid out just short of half a billion pounds in financial support to over 32,000 businesses.

“I am in awe of the resilience that people have shown throughout this pandemic, but now that the vaccine roll out is advancing at pace and pupils are returning to school there is light at the end of the tunnel. It is therefore important we turn our focus to reopening, recovering and rebuilding the local economy; ensure that all of retail can begin trading safely again and hospitality can open its doors to its customers once again.

“If the Northern Ireland economy is to recover, we need to give business some certainty around when they can open again. The reality for many businesses with staff on furlough is that they need to start ramping up activity now.

“With the publication of my Economic Recovery Action Plan, I have plotted a roadmap to recovery built around skills, innovation, new energy and investment; delivering the High Street Stimulus Scheme, a flexible skills fund, an artificial intelligence centre of excellence, a tourism voucher scheme, City and Growth Deals and a new green innovation challenge fund.

“It is important that we get on with that recovery now, leave behind the challenges of the past 12 months and start building for a brighter and better year ahead.”