Coronavirus: ‘Severe contraction’ in NI economy in April

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The Northern Ireland’s private sector suffered a “severe contraction” in April, Ulster Bank’s chief economist has said.

Richard Ramsey’s comments came as the bank’s monthly survey saw the steepest ever monthly fall in business activity.

Since 2002, the bank has conducted a monthly survey of a representative sample of firms.

The April survey showed activity collapsing, with many firms not operating due to the lockdown.

Lowest ever reading

Every month, the bank asks businesses about things such as new orders, exports and staffing.

This is used to create a numerical index with readings of more than 50 indicating expansion and under 50 indicating contraction.

In April, the headline seasonally-adjusted business activity index was just 8.3, by far its ever lowest reading.

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Ulster Bank

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Richard Ramsey is the chief economist at Ulster Bank

Mr Ramey said: “Until this pandemic struck, figures in the 20s were extremely rare.

“However, post the start of the Covid-19 pandemic we have seen index readings around the world fall into the teens and even a few into single digits.”

‘Much greater magnitude’

He said almost 90% of firms in manufacturing and services reported a decline in output relative to March.

He described the speed and scale of the downturn as having a “much greater magnitude” than the last recession.

Mr Ramsey said the data also suggested a significant take up of the job retention scheme, where the government funds 80% of workers’ wages, up to £2,500 a month, if they are unable to work.

“Just over half (52%) of local firms left workforce numbers unchanged,” he said.

“Nevertheless, it is still worrying that even with unprecedented levels of government job support, employment is still falling at a record pace.”

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