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Saturday, Jan 16, 2021

Coronavirus: NI ministers agree lockdown financial support

Coronavirus: NI ministers agree lockdown financial support

Stormont ministers have agreed a multi-million pound support package to help people hit by tightened Covid-19 lockdown restrictions.

From Friday, non-essential shops and businesses will close for two weeks, as part of tougher measures across NI.

The executive had pledged to provide additional financial support to businesses forced to close.

The immediate package will be worth about £338m, while £150m is being set aside for longer-term rates relief.

Finance Minister Conor Murphy set out full details of the plan in the assembly on Monday afternoon.

It comes as three more Covid-19 related deaths were recorded by the Department of Health in Northern Ireland on Monday, bringing the total to 936.

A further 280 people tested positive.



Among the measures agreed by the executive are:

* A £95m voucher scheme to encourage shoppers to support local traders by giving them a pre-paid card to spend on the High Street

* £44.3m to allow one-off heating payments of £200 to disabled people on higher rate allowances and older people in receipt of pension credit

* £20m for company directors, a group that has been excluded from previous support

* £20m to extend a 12-months rates holiday to manufacturing businesses, bringing the sector into line with what has been offered to hospitality, tourism, leisure and retail

* £10.6m to support about 1,000 drink-only pubs that have been shut since 16 October

* £10m for councils

* £10m for sports clubs hit by the restrictions

* £5m to top up the tourism and hospitality grants scheme

* £4.1m for about 953 bed and breakfast accommodation businesses excluded from previous support

* £3m to help local businesses grow online sales

The pre-paid card issued through the voucher scheme will be worth about £200 per household, said Mr Murphy.

He said the Department for the Economy will roll out the plan in early 2021, as it takes about six weeks to develop.

"It's not meant to support households, it's meant to stimulate growth on the High Street," he told assembly members.



Other allocations include £26.3m to the Department for Infrastructure to replace lost income for Translink, the Crumlin Road Gaol, Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency and the Rathlin Ferry, and £1.2m to support the City of Derry Airport.

There is also £5m to support the scheme for charities, to run until the end of March 2021, and £2.3m to top up the social enterprise grant scheme.

The finance minister also confirmed previously announced plans to extend free school meals payments until 2022, with £26.4m allocated to this.

Mr Murphy said uncertainty with the virus and not knowing how much Stormont would receive from the Treasury had made planning difficult.

He said the financial support package he was announcing was as a result of an additional £400m provided from Westminster two weeks ago to support the executive's response.

"Had we as an Executive allocated this funding immediately, we wouldn't have been able to take into account the new restrictions agreed by the Executive last week," he said.

"In my view it was right to have a plan in place to take us to the New Year, before making these allocations."

Mr Murphy and Economy Minister Diane Dodds are understood to have spent the weekend working on plans, with their departmental officials.

In Northern Ireland, three more coronavirus-related deaths were announced by the department of health on Monday, bringing its total to 936.

A further 280 positive tests were recorded, meaning there have been 50,064 cases of Covid-19.

There were no additional deaths documented in the Republic of Ireland, where the total stands at 2,022.

There have been 70,711 confirmed cases after 252 more were reported.



There was a cautious welcome in the assembly for Mr Murphy's announcement, but as one MLA remarked: "The devil will be in the detail."

Officials worked at pace over the weekend to draw up a support plan, using a mix of schemes already in place and some new grants.

The proposal grabbing most headlines is the voucher scheme for households to support the High Street, and some have questioned why every family will receive it, when some will obviously need more support than others.

But Mr Murphy defended the plan and said its purpose is to boost the High Street in the early New Year.

There are also concerns about how quickly payments will be made: Some businesses have been waiting more than five weeks for their grants promised during the first round of restrictions, implemented in October.

The executive will have to work at rapid speed to ensure people across Northern Ireland aren't left waiting, given Christmas is just around the corner.

The executive had faced criticism for not having new financial support in place before it announced the lockdown measures last Thursday evening.

But Mr Murphy said his officials were working as quickly as possible to process payments to those who need them.

The Belfast Chamber of Commerce has outlined a number of proposals to the executive about increasing assistance to businesses.

The organisation's chief executive Simon Hamilton welcomed the measures announced in the assembly.

He said he was particularly pleased by the voucher scheme, which his organisation had lobbied for.


The lockdown measures will last until 11 December, with ministers saying the new restrictions represented the "best chance" of getting to Christmas and new year without further regulations being needed.

Meanwhile, Health Minister Robin Swann has called on his executive colleagues to show "unity" and he has called for an end to "party-political point scoring".

He was speaking in the assembly on Monday as he gave details of the latest Covid-19 restrictions.

The minister said the executive needs to "put the last few weeks behind it", and that the leaking of executive discussions to the media were not helpful.

Mr Swann and the first and deputy first ministers are also expected to continue discussions with the Westminster government and other devolved administrations this week about a coordinated approach to Christmas.

Ulster Unionist MLA Alan Chambers told the assembly the DUP and Sinn Féin had "undermined" efforts to tackle Covid-19.

He said there was a "sense of outrage" at the behaviour of Sinn Féin figures who attended the funeral of republican Bobby Storey in June, while DUP politicians undermined the "vital message" of wearing masks by not doing so or by speaking out against the restrictions.

SDLP MLA Dolores Kelly also attacked Sinn Féin for the party's actions around Mr Storey's funeral. She said the health message had been "disregarded".

Family and friends


Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill took part in talks over the weekend, where leaders backed plans to allow some household mixing "for a small number of days" over Christmas.


Belfast's Castle Lane was busy with shoppers on Sunday


In respect of Northern Ireland, ministers have also "recognised that people will want to see family and friends across the island of Ireland, and this is the subject of discussions with the Irish government", the Cabinet Office said.

The government said work is continuing to finalise the arrangements, including on travel.


'We'd gladly have taken a full lockdown in October'


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