Northern Ireland news

Pressure mounting on Executive to approve expanded financial support to cover tougher lockdown

Finance Minister Conor Murphy is proposing to expand a support scheme for businesses into December. Picture by Hugh Russell.
Ryan McAleer

THE Executive could meet this weekend to approve additional support for businesses hit by coronavirus restrictions.

A grant scheme for traders forced to close by the health regulations is set to be rolled over into December under a proposal from the Department of Finance (DoF).

The Executive is under increased pressure to allocate part of a £500 million Covid-19 cash pile to support businesses through the tougher two-week lockdown set to come into effect on November 27.

Finance Minister Conor Murphy said yesterday that it was his clear intention to bring a paper to the next meeting of the Executive to provide some certainty for businesses.

“We want to get that money out as quickly as possible,” he said.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill hinted that Sinn Féin could seek a weekend meeting of the Executive to approve the extra funding.

Speaking in Coalisland yesterday, she said: "The Executive needs to meet today, tomorrow, Sunday, Monday to get that money out the door.”

Any decision to stage a weekend meeting of the Executive would need the backing of the DUP.

Hospitality and close contact businesses were forced to close on October 16, while some businesses in Derry and Strabane have been closed since October 5.

It's believed the DoF proposal would see an increase in the budget for the £35m Localised Restrictions Support Scheme (LRSS), which provides weekly payments of £800 to £1,600 for rate-paying businesses required to close under the health regulations.

Rolling the scheme over for those businesses should be relatively straightforward, with no new applications required.

But it's thought that new measures may be needed for the broader range of businesses that have been ordered to close from November 27, including non-essential retailers.

The reopening of close contact businesses and cafes for one week has also complicated matters.

An increase in the level of payment is not expected to form part of the finance proposal.

The LRSS is being rolled out by the north's rate-collection agency, Land & Property Services (LPS), which is under the remit of DoF.

At least 11,500 businesses have applied to the scheme.

DoF confirmed last night that £17.4m has now been paid out to 4,590 businesses to date. A significant number of applications have also been deemed ineligible.

The department has been criticised after admitting that applications could take five weeks to process.

But issuing grants is new territory for LPS. It's understood that the agency has been required to retrain some of its staff for the task. The rates body is now believed to be operating at capacity.

Invest NI has been tasked by Economy Minister Diane Dodds with running two much smaller schemes for businesses forced to close, but unable to apply to the LRSS.

Part A of the Covid Restrictions Business Support Scheme (CRBSS) offers £600 a week to businesses with have been forced to close, but can't apply to the LRSS.

As of last night, £3.6m has been paid to 1,200 businesses under the scheme. The Department for the Economy (DfE) said 65 per cent of 2,773 applications had been processed.

Part B of the scheme, which offers lump sums of £2,000 to £4,800 to supply chain businesses, opened on Thursday night.

A DfE spokesperson said: “The Economy Minister has instructed officials to extend the terms of the CRBSS. Further details will follow early next week.

“The minister remains committed to working to support as many businesses as possible within the funding envelope available.”

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access

Northern Ireland news