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What COVID-19 means for Northern Ireland

Mar 12, 2020

COVID-19 is a serious concern for everyone. How can businesses in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK cope with the inevitable disruption this virus will bring?

Businesses in Northern Ireland have had to contend with many difficult situations over the years. Each time they have demonstrated their resilience and determination by overcoming these challenges and ‘getting on with it’. This resilience and determination will be a key factor in the local business community’s response to the threat of COVID-19. The virus has already had a serious impact on other countries, and it is inevitable that Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom will also be impacted materially. 

COVID-19 is a serious concern for us all as individuals, for our families, and for the wider community. As well as guidance on the appropriate precautions we should all be taking, the UK Government has given assurances that resources are being applied to ensure that appropriate medical treatment will be available for those who succumb to the virus. This is a welcome and necessary statement and should provide a degree of comfort.

While businesses are proactively engaging in the recommended practices to minimise its spread, it is likely that there will be some form of business disruption in the coming weeks. Most businesses already have contingency plans for such scenarios and through the implementation of these, the impact on business continuity can be reduced. Planning, anticipation and level-headed leadership is critical to the success of this process and it is essential that businesses are proactive and ensure they have practical and deliverable contingency plans in place.

If, as in other countries, more extensive restrictions are imposed, the impact on businesses will inevitably worsen. Any protracted periods of restricted movement will ultimately lead to a dramatic impact on output and productivity. The priority is to address the medical issue and to ensure that the spread of the virus is curtailed as quickly as possible, but the knock-on impact on businesses cannot be ignored. The Government has acknowledged the concerns of the business community and has introduced special provisions in last week’s Budget, which will go some way to meet the inevitable cash-flow pressures that will arise. 

Unfortunately, all business sectors have the potential to be impacted by the current situation. Staff absences, cash flow and supply chain disruption are all factors that will need to be considered.

Northern Ireland has a strong and growing tourism, leisure and hospitality sector. The rates relief announced in the Budget will help this sector, so long as the NI Executive introduces these measures locally, as currently they only extend to England. This sector looks certain to be hit further as we move to the delay phase. These measures could be critical in helping vulnerable businesses to survive.

Businesses will need to engage with all stakeholders, including banks and financial institutions, and will need to move to protect their supply chains. Stakeholders within the business community will have to work together to overcome this challenge. Leaders need to adopt a people first approach as businesses cannot survive or re-emerge without their workforce. In the meantime, we all have an obligation and duty to adhere to the Government’s recommendations and, by doing so, hopefully bring a speedy conclusion to the outbreak.

Brian Murphy is Managing Partner at BDO Northern Ireland.