The President of Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry (NI Chamber) has warned of the challenges to be faced in 2021. Ian Henry said businesses had to “remain flexible and fleet-of-foot, as they grapple with the changes brought by Brexit and further Covid-19 restrictions, with many having to rethink tried and trusted business models, supply chains and market strategies”.
Speaking on behalf of the business support organisation, which represents over 1,000 businesses across Northern Ireland, employing over 100,000 people, Mr Henry said: “2020 has been a year of disruption and frustration for so many businesses.
“As we enter 2021, businesses begin the year operating yet again under enhanced restrictions as a result of Covid-19.
“Our members want to be able to open without interruption, for their customers and suppliers to be able to come and go freely, for trade to recover and for confidence to return but we must do this safely and within the guidelines.
“Without a doubt, the arrival of mass vaccination gives our business communities hope for a better year in 2021.
“Even with a Brexit deal, firms face an enormous amount of change in terms of how they trade.
“Responsibility rests squarely with the UK Government to provide crystal-clear guidance that lets businesses plan into 2021 and beyond.
“The alternative is a new year that begins with even greater turbulence for supply chains, trade and markets – and higher costs for us all, leaving us with a disadvantage.”
He continued: “Whilst the pandemic is far from over and many industries continue to suffer the effects of restrictions, we also strongly believe that it is time to start looking ahead and planning our economy’s recovery strategy.
“Recently, NI Chamber has been working alongside some of Northern Ireland’s leading economists to deliver ‘Thrive’ – a pragmatic plan for economic recovery.
Thrive is an action plan which focuses on how we can start the recovery in Northern Ireland and ensure that enterprises are well placed to recover from the challenges and grasp new opportunities as they occur.”
Commenting on a wide range of specific issues that must therefore be addressed in 2021, Mr Henry said: “2021 will require additional support for businesses to develop digital trade, including digital sales platforms linking into global networks.
“The region will also require further expert representation in global markets, assisting businesses here to identify new international customers.
“In relation to target markets, reviving air connectivity will be key and business hubs in Europe, the US and Asia should be an Executive priority.
“The UK Government must support regional accessibility in order to level up NI’s economic performance.”
Mr Henry said the expected digitalisation of work had been rapidly accelerated.
“Demand for systems skills such as programing and robotics increased as consumers moved online.
“There is now a need to amend the curriculum for subjects at all levels to include ‘systems skills’ such as ICT and data analytics alongside ‘human skills’ like empathy and strategy.
“We must invest in languages to support international trade, focusing most on those used in growing economies like Asia.
“The Government must also urgently prioritise the retraining of young people within disrupted industries for other opportunities.”
He said a competitive, sustainable and reliable energy infrastructure was required to meet the current and future needs of society.
“To support the transition to net zero by 2050, NI must invest in high quality digital infrastructure and rapidly progress projects like the North South Interconnector,” said Mr Henry.
“Enterprise support should be directed toward fuel switching, on-site generation and cost effective solutions for enterprise, including waste management and electric vehicles.”
He went on: “Rapid changes in our working patterns have led to significantly increased demand on the region’s digital infrastructure.
“Thanks to public and private sector investment, it has proven to be mostly fit for purpose, enabling large swathes of the population to work from home.
“As planning for recovery begins, the NI Executive should assess increased demands on the physical infrastructure as people return to work, including roads, rail, sea, air, waste and energy.”
Mr Henry concluded: “As they have done throughout the pandemic, business people are ready and willing to work collaboratively with the public, private, academic and voluntary sectors to build back a thriving economy for all.
“We call on the UK and Irish governments, the NI Executive and local authorities, academia and the voluntary sector to work together, regardless of location or political background, to make a better future a reality.”
Wishing business people across Northern Ireland a very Happy New Year, the NI Chamber President finished by echoing widespread hopes for a more prosperous, safe and healthy 2021.
“With the New Year comes renewed energy and hope that the next 12 months will provide companies with the certainty, conditions and support they need to prosper.”
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