The dawn of the New Year has not brought much cause for optimism due to the continued tragic impact and disruption from COVID 19, and now emergence of the practical difficulties imposed by Brexit.
Amid the continued rise of unemployment and the continuation of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, the current lockdown has again reinforced the importance of working from home wherever possible. The professional services sector is particularly affected in this regard as, while some workers are again retreating to their bedrooms, spare rooms and kitchen tables, there are others who haven’t seen the inside of their offices since March last year, and may not for the foreseeable future. The almost yearlong exodus from Belfast City Centre has effectively wiped out the ecosystem of cafes, shops and restaurants who relied on the city centre workers for daytime trade.
While some large, multinational corporations can afford to maintain, renew or even enter into new city centre leases in this climate, many sectors of the economy have long since passed their breaking point. A recent example in the retail sector has been Poundland putting five of its stores in Northern Ireland into “hibernation” as reported by the Irish News on 9 January. This is a company with over 800 stores UK wide, so the difficulties facing smaller retailers can only be imagined. With the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium reporting a 47 percent decrease in city centre footfall compared to December 2019, the reality of the impact of Covid is stark. Supply issues due to Brexit are now impacting the large supermarkets and these issues will have an even greater detrimental effect on smaller retailers who are not able to avail of large-scale distribution infrastructure and purchasing power.
The hospitality sector is still being badly afflicted with the continued closure of all cafes, restaurants, pubs and clubs not providing takeaway, drive through or delivery services. This shuttering of an entire economic sector is being felt up and down the supply chain as without customers crossing the threshold, stock being turned over and income generated, lenders and supplies are facing problems as well.
Thankfully, not everything is doom and gloom as with continued uncertainty about the international travel extending into the summer, it is hoped that the encouraging progress through the continued vaccine roll out and the current lockdown can prepare the way for some relaxing of restrictions in the medium term.
Furthermore, with several sectors of industry in robust health, there are companies continuing to invest in commercial property, with several large-scale developments in Belfast recently being granted planning permission. There is also demand for industrial warehousing and storage which may be as a result of Brexit, and the increase in online purchasing and home delivery throughout the pandemic.
At O’Reilly Stewart, we have provided advice to commercial clients throughout the pandemic to help deal with the many challenges they have faced. We look forward to continuing this support to current and new clients in 2021.