Stormont set to develop post-lockdown recovery plan

The Stormont executive is to commence work on developing a post-coronavirus recovery plan for Northern Ireland next week, the First Minister has said.

Arlene Foster said a one-year rates holiday for business owners would be one measure ministers would consider as part of efforts to chart a “path back to normality”.

Mrs Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill will meet with the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service David Sterling next week to discuss the recovery plan.

The head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service David Sterling  (Niall Carson/PA)
The head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service David Sterling (Niall Carson/PA)

At Friday’s Covid-19 briefing at Stormont, both ministers insisted focus must be maintained on current efforts to suppress the virus.

But they said the executive also needed to start planning for the future and consider how the societal and economic damage wreaked by Covid-19 can be addressed.

Mrs Foster said ministers would consider the rates relief move taken in other parts of the UK, with businesses being offered a 12 month exemption from bills.

She said it was important to remember that the current restrictions on movement are “only temporary”.

“We will return to something resembling normality and school corridors will eventually bustle again and restaurants and bars and sports grounds and concert halls and theatres will entertain once more.

“As an executive we are considering what a path back to normality will look like.

“We are going to develop our recovery plan, and the Deputy First Minister and I will meet with the head of the civil service next week to make progress on that.

“Many sectors have been heavily impacted. Those on lists for hospital appointments and treatments have seen their waits extended and our economy of course has taken a massive hit.

“We need to ensure our businesses are in as strong a position as possible to stabilise and to rebuild in the months and years to come. We will continue to work closely with business. We hear the calls around what can make a difference in terms of business rates and other issues, and the executive will do all that they can in order to assist.

“Change around the broader societal interventions the executive has had to make is going to need to be very delicately handled and our response will be a graduated one.

“Given this maybe is only the first wave of this pandemic and no vaccine is as yet readily available we will be very much guided by scientific advice and the experience of other parts of the globe, where they have relaxed their restrictions.”

On the specific proposal for a year-long rates holiday, she said: “We will have further discussions around all of these issues next week, obviously we can only work with the budget that we have, we do recognise that across the United Kingdom now, including Scotland, has moved to 12 months as well.

“And therefore we will be taking all of that into account when we’re having our discussions next week. It seems to me it is a key help to businesses in relation to rates but, as I say, we have to as an executive agree to all of these matters, and we’ll be looking at this early next week.”

Ms O’Neill said it had been a “tough week” for the region, as the daily death rate reached 18 on two successive days.

She insisted Northern Ireland was “not out of the woods” and urged people to keep the fight going against Covid-19.

The deputy first minister warned against “complacency”.

On the executive’s recovery planning, she added: “The approach that the executive will take would be to have a strategic conversation about where we go next and how we build our way out of this.

“And we have to factor in many of those things like that the issue of rates (and) we have to factor in how we value the lowest paid workers in our society who we are depending on so much right now.

“So there’s a strategic conversation to be had.

“But I want the message for the viewers tonight to be the public health message and that is about staying at home.”

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