COVID-19: Economic Recovery

The Executive Office – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:30 pm on 7th July 2020.

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Photo of Pat Sheehan Pat Sheehan Sinn Féin 2:30 pm, 7th July 2020

15. Mr Sheehan asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister for an update on the Executive’s plans for economic recovery following the COVID-19 crisis. (AQO 534/17-22)

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

We have reached an important point in the COVID-19 pandemic, where we are beginning to look beyond the response phase towards the actions that will be needed to effect a robust and sustainable recovery, rebuild public services and restore more normal ways of living.

Our approach will be to build on sectoral plans, such as the economic recovery strategy, which was published recently by the Economy Minister, and to bring forward an inclusive Programme for Government, which is based on collaboration and joined-up thinking to deliver good outcomes in the things that matter most to people.

We will continue to develop strong cross-sectoral working partnerships, such as that provided through the engagement forum, which is chaired by the LRA, and maintain a dialogue with stakeholders as a basis for strengthening and enhancing societal well-being, with our immediate priorities being to get our economy working again, strengthen our health and social care services and mitigate the immediate societal impacts of the crisis.

Photo of Pat Sheehan Pat Sheehan Sinn Féin

Does the Minister agree that, as a society and an economy, we cannot go back to what was there before COVID-19? We must have a society that is just, equal, people-centred and inclusive.

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

It is clear that the COVID-19 pandemic will have lasting and profound impacts on society and the economy. An immediate priority for the Executive will be to help our local businesses get through the crisis and get the economy working again. However, that does not simply mean returning to the way that things were. The crisis has allowed us to view things in a different light, and it has shown us new ways of working and given us opportunities to explore different technologies and experiment with alternative working patterns. There is no doubt that the world that emerges out of the pandemic will be significantly different to what has gone before. We need to be ready to grasp emerging good practice and be able to learn quickly from others so that we can make this a good place to live, to work and to do business. We need to achieve economic growth in a balanced and sustainable way that puts social justice, workers' rights and equality at its centre. We need to be prepared to look forward rather than back when it comes to societal recovery. We must, however, acknowledge and help with the trauma that people have suffered, particularly those who have lost loved ones. Those are issues that will need to be explored with key stakeholders across all sectors as we start to plan for the recovery and as we bring forward our new Programme for Government.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

One of the most vital aspects of the economic recovery from COVID-19 will be dealing with the effects of Brexit later this year. The deputy First Minister said earlier that the Executive Office is doing all that it can to protect Northern Ireland from the effects of Brexit. With respect, there is culture of silence from the Executive Office. Since the Assembly reformed, we have had no formal updates from the Executive Office on the delivery of the protocol or on the broader issues relating to Brexit. It is not enough, deputy First Minister

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

May we have a question, please?

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

— to defer to the ideologues in Whitehall. Can we have before recess a specific update on legislation that the Assembly will have to pass before the end of the year and also a plan for engaging with local businesses on what they need to do to deal with the effects of Brexit? First Ministers, we need that urgently.

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

I absolutely agree that Brexit is one of the biggest challenges that we face. As we rebuild the economy, what our businesses and our people are craving is certainty, and we need to get that certainty. As we move towards the end of the year, I would be very fearful if we were still in a space where we could have a crash-out Brexit, which would be catastrophic.

We have the protocol. That protocol must be implemented. It was hard-fought. The Executive continue to discuss all those things. As I said, the implementation of the protocol is the role and responsibility of the British Government, but the agri-food role falls to DAERA here, so a lot more work needs to be done to give our local ports, for example, the required clarity. We need to continue to engage with the sector to make sure that we answer questions, of which people have many, and that we give that clarity. We will continue to engage with the Assembly on all of that and, indeed, with our own TEO Committee.

The Executive themselves have now had a number of dedicated sessions on Brexit, because, over the past number of months, a lot of the focus was on COVID-19. We have been very conscious for some time now, however, that we had to get back to dealing head-on with the issue of Brexit.

Photo of Paula Bradshaw Paula Bradshaw Alliance

I am just wondering what role our universities will play in the economic recovery and whether the Executive will support the lifting of the cap on student numbers.

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

I will say first that, just as it did to fight COVID-19, it is going to take all our effort to recover. That means working with all our stakeholders. If I could point to one of the positives in how we have dealt with the COVID-19 crisis, I would point to the work that has been done with business organisations, with the trade union movement and right across the piece. That work has been crucial. I want us to continue with that partnership approach. A collaborative approach with society is one of the things that was written into the NDNA deal. If we are going to build, that means working with the universities, the further education colleges and all the other stakeholders, because we have a huge battle on our hands in the time ahead to build our economy, to make sure that there are employment prospects and to make sure that we tackle all the issues that need to be tackled.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

That was the last of the questions —

Photo of Keith Buchanan Keith Buchanan DUP

On a point of order Mr Deputy Speaker.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

— to the Executive Office. I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments. We will return at a quarter to three with questions to the Minister of Health.

Points of order are not normally taken during Question Time, so if someone has a point of order to raise, we will wait until after Question Time to take it. Members, take your ease for a few moments.