There are fears for the future of Northern Ireland’s hospitality industry over the impact of the coronavirus, after one of the sector’s biggest employers laid off 800 staff.
The Beannchor Group is closing most of its portfolio of bars and hotels with immediate effect.
The move is temporary, but it is difficult to predict when businesses may be able to return to normal amid the uncertainty around the pandemic.
In Belfast, the Dirty Onion and Yard Bird, the National, sixty6, Bullitt, the Ulster Sports Club, and the Park Avenue Hotel have closed.
The group’s flagship hotel, the Merchant, will remain open, but will be significantly scaled back to adhere to health and safety guidelines around social distancing.
Little Wing Pizzeria’s nine restaurants across Northern Ireland will remain open, but also with increased social distancing protocols in place and an enhanced takeaway operation introduced.
The Hillside in Hillsborough will also remain open, with additional social distancing measures.
Never in 43 years of business have I seen a crisis like this one, nor faced a decision like this. This has been an emotional and extremely tough decision - but if we do not act now, we will not have a business to return to.
Beannchor Managing Director Bill Wolsey said: “We have made this decision because we feel we have to act responsibly in the best longer term interests of the group and its staff.
“We waited for as long as we could to see what support might be available from the government, but the so-called ‘support package’ announced by the Prime Minister and Chancellor is absolutely no support at all.
“They are offering loans, which will only serve to build up more debt and they are providing absolutely no support to our staff, which is our key priority.
“Meanwhile, other countries in Europe are rallying to help businesses and staff in their vital industries to weather this storm. It’s absolutely abysmal.”
Mr Wolsey added: “This is a terrible blow for our people who have made this group the success story it has become and we will be doing all that we can to support them in the coming weeks.”
Chief Executive of Hospitality Ulster Colin Neill said the decision showed how critical the situation was for the industry.
“Even some of the biggest employers are having to take drastic measures - no business is too big not to feel the negative impacts of Covid-19,” he said.
“They are all in a precarious position.”
Our fear is that the sector will be truly decimated by the end of the week.
Mr Neill added: “There have been many other small businesses laying off staff in the last few days and I only dread to think of what is truly ahead of us if the NI Executive doesn’t bring forward an industry specific rescue package soon.”
On Wednesday, he told members of the NI Assembly’s Economy Committee: “We now have a disaster on our hands. This is an emergency situation.
“Overnight, thousands of jobs went to the wall and we are expecting thousands to go by the end of the day – this is real, and the government are watching this happen as time ticks away.
“We need to stop the clock on domestic bills for our people - we need an emergency programme and package in place TODAY.”
Numerous businesses across the hospitality and arts sector have been forced to close temporarily in recent days – including on St Patrick’s Day, one of the busiest days of the year for pubs.
However, it may prove difficult for all of them to weather the coronavirus storm.
From 5am on Wednesday, all McDonalds restaurants in the UK and Ireland closed seating areas and moved to takeaway, drive-thru and delivery operations only.
CEO of Belfast Chamber Simon Hamilton said: “It is clear that if business is to pull through this really challenging period and we are to protect jobs, then businesses will need much more support from the Executive.
“Our businesses need the same support that their counterparts in Great Britain are getting and the Chancellor’s announcement more funding available which needs to get to business in Belfast and across the region urgently.”
Northern Ireland will receive an additional £640m to support its efforts to tackle the Covid-19 outbreak, as part of a package of measures announced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak.
Secretary of State Brandon Lewis said, combined with the £260m already announced by HM Treasury, this amounts to an injection of more than £900m.
He added that a “very strong package of measures” had been unveiled to support the UK economy, stating: “We will do whatever it takes to support jobs, incomes and businesses across Northern Ireland and help to protect your loved ones.”
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