As you will be aware, this week the Executive published its five-stage plan to ease the restrictions – and on Monday we will see the reopening of garden centres, as long as they have social distancing practices in place.
As Economy Minister I obviously want to see the economy begin to function again. I want to see businesses across Northern Ireland reopen and begin to trade again.
But this will only be possible if we all act responsibly, follow the Executive guidance, social distancing advice and continue to collectively drive ‘r’ down.
Over the past few weeks I have been focussing on the task of economic recovery, working in partnership with business and industry across Northern Ireland.
I have been seeking to harness the knowledge and experience of those leaders who led our economy to record levels of employment just a few short months ago; and channel it into plotting a course back to economic prosperity.
I am re-establishing the Economic Advisory Group that was previously in place to advise my predecessors. It will provide expert advice on our economic strategy and on recovery.
Equally as importantly, it will help us identify global market opportunities and ensure that, as a small country, we understand the sectors to focus on and build on our world class reputation in areas such as cyber security, fin-tech and digital start ups
Our tourism and hospitality sectors have been amongst those sectors hit hardest - this morning I chaired the Tourism Recovery Steering Group. It was established to galvanise the energy and expertise within that sector to drive forward the rebuilding of that industry, identifying the likely short to medium term trends in travel and to ensure that we are focussing our efforts in the right places, and at the right time.
I am also working to develop the Executive’s roadmap to a strong, competitive and regionally balanced economy. I will bring a paper to the Executive next week which will outline on how we will put the pathway to recovery into action.
Safe working practices have been, are, and will always be non-negotiable.
I have asked the Engagement Forum chaired by the Labour Relations Agency to consider safety guidance recently published by UK Government, and to assess whether this would improve on the guidance we already have in place to help our employers, employees and the self-employed understand how to work safely during the coronavirus pandemic.
However, I am acutely aware that many businesses are not in this space just yet. Many business are still reeling from the initial impact and require assistance to survive.
So far we have distributed nearly a quarter of a billion pounds in support to over 22,500 businesses through the £10k Small Business Support Scheme and the £25k Hospitality, Tourism, Leisure and Retail scheme.
The closing date for both schemes is May 20, so I urge all remaining eligible businesses to apply before then.
From tonight, the £25k scheme will be expanded to businesses that occupy rental properties. A portal for applications will open on nibusinessinfo from 9pm.
Today I am announcing the launch of a new £40m hardship scheme to help microbusinesses.
It is targeted at businesses with one to nine employees facing immediate cash flow difficulties due to COVID-19. Invest NI will run this scheme and will publish the eligibility criteria this evening.
An online eligibility checker will open next week to enable businesses to check if they qualify.
The scheme will open within the next seven days.
I hope that this will help us fill more of the gaps in support for people out there in the community.
But the greatest help will be ensuring that people can start trading again and that we have a strong economy to return to.
I look forward to a safe, gradual return to work alongside the easing of restrictions.
I have every faith in the ability of business in Northern Ireland to be agile and determined as they bring our economy back to where it should be. And I stand beside them to offer whatever support I can.
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