By Michael McHugh and David Young, PA
Click and collect guidance has been published on the first day of a circuit-breaker which has emptied Northern Ireland’s busiest streets.
Belfast city centre was deserted on Friday and major shopping centres like Victoria Square were full of closed shutters.
Most shops can operate on an appointment-only basis for collection to limit the spread of coronavirus infection over the next fortnight.
Customers cannot enter non-essential retailers, pubs and restaurants or close contact services like hairdressers, but Stormont ministers hope the online marketplace can help salvage some pre-Christmas sales.
Economy Minister Diane Dodds said: “The publication of this guidance will help business owners and customers ensure they are operating safely and within Northern Ireland legislation.
“It is crucial we protect the retail sector, while reassuring customers that businesses are operating safely and optimising technology, and minimising the risk of spreading Covid-19.”
Meanwhile, the Department of Health announced on Friday that another 391 people have tested positive for Covid-19.
Twelve more deaths have been recorded.
Tough restrictions have been introduced to drive down the rate of infection ahead of the Christmas period.
They follow a steep rise in hospital admissions and warnings that the health service could be overwhelmed next month.
(Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride)
Chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride said: “We have some difficult months ahead of us.
“The vaccine will not see us through this winter but I am confident by late spring it will be doing a lot of the heavy lifting and hopefully talk of wider and further restrictions will increasingly become a thing of the past.”
The new guidance on shopping includes:
– Retailers and customers are encouraged to use online ordering and delivery as the first choice.
– Those who do not have an online facility should consider the potential of phoned-in or text ordering.
– Collections are by appointment only and should be scheduled to ensure no customer-to-customer contact and no queuing.
– Retailers are encouraged to allocate time slots which will allow them to manage a reasonable number of people per hour and customers are encouraged to attend within that time slot.
– If collection is from a store in a shopping centre, the collection point should be close to the entrance with a one-way system.
– Customers are not permitted to enter stores – the collection should be from the entrance door.
Garden centres, supermarkets and homeware stores are exempt from closing throughout the fortnight, and schools will also remain open.
Matt Stevenson, from Holywood in Co Down, has founded a website – supportlocalni.com – which lists more than 100 local businesses’ details.
A business can register for free and it allows people who click on the page to learn a little about it.
He said: “You are not giving your business to the richest man in the world, you are giving it to the local people of Northern Ireland.”
It has been used by 9,000 people in the last month.
“It does not matter if you already have an online presence or you are struggling to get an online presence, this will bring you extra eyes,” Mr Stevenson added.
“Especially given these new restrictions that are coming into place, it has never been more important to have as much footfall to your online store as possible.”
Ministers are considering issuing a voucher in the new year to all households to help battered businesses weather the winter.