• NI Chamber & BDO survey reveals fastest and deepest collapse for key economic indicators

NI Chamber & BDO survey reveals fastest and deepest collapse for key economic indicators

02 July 2020

  • Immediate impact of COVID-19 much greater than aftermath of the 2008/09 financial crash
  • 77% of firms have already furloughed employees and 12% have made staff redundant
  • 1 in 2 members (52%) intend to reduce staff levels post COVID-19
  • Almost 1 in 5 imply that the business might not survive
  • NI Chamber provides recommendations to government that will allow businesses to recover and invest

The latest Quarterly Economic Survey (QES) published today (2 July 2020) by Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry (NI Chamber) and BDO, highlights that COVID-19 has precipitated the worst QES performance on record. 

The survey suggests that the immediate impact of COVID-19 is much greater than the aftermath of the 2008/09 financial crash, with dramatic falls in short term indicators around domestic sales, exports, jobs, cash flow and in longer term indicators around business confidence and investment intentions. 

Impact of COVID-19 
The fall out on staffing for members from COVID-19 in just one quarter has been seismic: 

  • 77% have furloughed employees and 12% have made staff redundant. 
  • In addition, 23% have reduced working hours for staff and a number of businesses mentioned salary reductions, either temporary or permanent. 
  • 1 in 2 members (52%) highlighted their intention to reduce staff levels post COVID-19 
  • Almost 1 in 5 (17%) imply that the business might not survive. 

The survey also indicates that businesses will introduce new ways of working post COVID: 

  • The biggest change is in the proportion intending to introduce flexible working (62%) but also almost 1 in 4 (23%) intend to reduce office space. 
  • 30% of businesses believe that they will change the products/services they supply. 

Businesses are understandably more negative about future business prospects: 

  • 7 in 10 members (69%) believe that their business prospects will deteriorate over the next 12 months. This figure was just 25% when asked in the Q4 19 survey. 
  • On a more positive note, there is still a core of members, almost 1 in 4, who believe their business will grow over the coming year. 


Brexit Watch 
This quarter NI Chamber’s quarterly Brexit Watch asked members about preparations for Brexit: 

  • 2 in 5 members are currently making preparations for Brexit (44%) while 50% are making no preparations at all. 
  • COVID-19 has disrupted Brexit planning with 38% of members making fewer preparations to leave the EU while dealing from the fall out of the virus on their business. 
  • Despite the UK formally rejecting an extension to the transition period, 3 in 5 members (60%) believe that more time is needed and that the transition period should have been extended. 

Commenting on the findings, Ann McGregor, Chief Executive of NI Chamber, said:

“This survey reflects the fall out of arguably the worst economic and social crisis of our lifetime. In terms of the economy, the vast majority of indicators dropped to historic lows, with declines far exceeding those seen at the height of the global financial crisis. 
“The services sector suffered particularly badly, with consumer-facing firms most acutely exposed to economic headwinds from the pandemic. The manufacturing sector had a dismal three months, with collapsing demand and major disruption to supply chains weighing on the sector. The unprecedented slump in business cash flow is a key concern as it severely hampers business activity and staff retention. 
“Businesses were already concerned about the impact of Brexit on the economy before COVID-19 however the recent pandemic has placed this in an entirely different context – with companies facing a ‘double whammy’ of Brexit and the COVID-19 fallout, placing a huge challenge on the business community in Northern Ireland.” 


Brian Murphy, Managing Partner, BDO NI, said:

“There can be no sugar coating that these findings are stark. Stark, but sadly expected. Few individuals or businesses have escaped the impact of COVID-19 and the unprecedented lockdown that has been in place for over 3 months. 

“What we must do now is focus on how we adapt to the new way of life and grow the economy. The UK Government and NI Executive have moved quickly to help many businesses survive and be able to reopen. The furlough scheme, which 77% availed of, demonstrates that this quick action has helped save jobs that otherwise would have been lost. It is deeply concerning that 52% of businesses plan to reduce staffing levels, however, without the furlough scheme there is no doubt this number would have been significantly higher. 

"The impact of covid-19 on employment numbers are of particular concern and regrettably it is likely that the job loss announcements will continue. The decision to let people go is one not taken lightly but in the current economic climate it may be a necessary one in order for businesses to survive. Whilst difficult, such decisions may well serve to increase the productivity and efficiency of businesses and therefore create a stronger foundation on which to build and accelerate our economic recovery.

“We need the NI Executive to support local businesses as they innovate, looking to develop new technologies or services to meet the emerging demands. We need Government to harness our world class digital businesses and tech sector and empower them to grow. The Executive must also move to support new training and reskilling programmes that would allow workforces and businesses to be adaptable and flexible to meet the demands of a post COVID-19 world. 

“Businesses also have their role to play, where possible they should support local firms to secure the supply chain and boost the local economy. 15% of respondents indicated they were planning to do so, as time passes we would expect this number to increase. We don’t yet know what the new reality will be, however, it is encouraging to see from the survey that despite the challenges, four out of five firms expect to remain in business. In order to survive and thrive they need to adapt to the new normal right now and not expect life to return to how it was only a few months ago. The world has changed. Business must meet this change.” 

NI Chamber asks 
Commenting on actions from government that will help businesses recover and invest, Ms McGregor said:

“The key areas to be addressed remain as they did before – skills, infrastructure, growing exports and reducing the cost of doing business – whilst any new strategy must also provide a swifter movement towards digitalisation and sustainability. However, a major barrier to achieving this will be the enhanced levels of debt which the COVID-19 pandemic has created amongst businesses, meaning an investment in growth will be difficult or impossible unless the Government acts swiftly. 

“Whilst we welcome the formation of the EAG to advise the Economy Minister, NI Chamber believes that Northern Ireland needs a cross sectoral, cross departmental advisory group which develops a strategy similar to the Scottish Government’s ‘Towards a Robust, Resilient Wellbeing Economy for Scotland’ and Scotland’s Fiscal Recovery Plan.” 

In response, Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry has recommended the following actions: 

  • A Westminster-led Business Revival Fund that firms can use in any way they need to increase productivity (change products/services, invest in new markets, introduce more sustainable practices, invest in AI etc) to deal with the fall out of the COVID-19 crisis
  • A Rapid Response Trade Programme that protects and grows Northern Ireland’s export/external trade base (through a range of supports including advice, training, access to networks, finance) and supports businesses dealing with new trade arrangements post EU exit 
  • A business focused Reskilling/Up-skilling Programme working directly with the local business community to design and implement a range of supports that allows businesses to preserve and grow their workforce with skills directly aligned to existing and/or new business needs 
  • An Overhaul of Government Procurement with a renewed emphasis on local sourcing, opening up  opportunities to a wider range of businesses/organisations (including smaller businesses), building in more sustainable procurement practices 
  • A Review of Business Indebtedness to understand the scale of indebtedness and ability of business to meet repayments and interest, particularly in light of the extensive government backed lending response to the COVID-19 crisis 


Notes to Editor: 

  • 296 members responded to the NI Chamber QES, in partnership with BDO, for the 2nd quarter of 2020. Together they account for 32,500 jobs in Northern Ireland. 
  • Fieldwork took place between 21 May and 5 June 2020. 

Sector specific findings: 

The manufacturing sector has suffered a significant collapse in most key indicators in Q2 20: 

  • Domestic sales and exports balances have fallen to historic lows. 
  • Although the employment balance, reflecting the balance of businesses taking on employees in the last 3 months, is negative, it did not fall as rapidly compared to the financial crash. Fewer businesses are expecting to grow their workforce. 
  • Only 16% of manufacturers are operating at full capacity. This has been falling consistently and was 21% last quarter and 56% two years ago. 
  • The business confidence balance fell from +18% (Q1 20) to -58% (Q2 20). 
  • Investment intentions for the sector have been more severely impacted than during the financial crash. 
  • The balance of businesses intending to invest in plant and machinery fell to -52%. 

The survey findings suggest that the services sector has been most negatively impacted by the COVID-19 crisis: 

  • Sales in last 3 months and orders for the next 3 months are very weak. 
  • As with manufacturing, the employment balances in Q2 have not been as negatively impacted. 
  • In just one quarter the services turnover confidence balance fell from +7% (Q1 20) to -69% (Q2 20). 
  • The balance of businesses intending to invest in plant and machinery fell to -42%. 

Regional Position 

Northern Ireland has suffered one of the largest collapses in key indicators across the 12 UK regions. It is the worst performing region for 7 of the 12 key manufacturing indicators and 6 of the 12 in services. Business confidence has taken a greater hit in Northern Ireland, in manufacturing particularly.