The daily death toll from this virus is horrendous. My thoughts, first and foremost, are with grieving families across Northern Ireland, people currently in hospital or ill at home and our NHS staff who are working to save lives daily.
The biggest health emergency Northern Ireland has ever faced has also created an unprecedented economic crisis.
As Economy Minister, my role right now is to try and mitigate the worst impacts on our economy by protecting as many livelihoods as possible. By doing this, I believe, we will safeguard the economic foundations on which our recovery must be built.
This is the reason why we are working hard to distribute over £400m in support packages to businesses right across Northern Ireland.
This is why I am in near-daily contact with Ministers in Westminster, working on behalf of businesses large and small, on behalf of sectors including manufacturing, tourism, construction, aviation and haulage, and on behalf of workers and the self-employed.
The need to prepare the local economy to a return to normality at some point is the driving force behind the work we do to help furloughed or redundant workers retrain or find work in the sectors where they are needed most.
It is my priority to do everything in my power to try and protect jobs, safeguard supply chains and sustain businesses.
However, let us be in no doubt about the scale of this task.
COVID-19 has brought a halt to a significant portion of global economic activity. Exporting and importing have become more and more difficult, supply chains are significantly disrupted and international travel has all but ceased. .
A whole swathe of industries have had to close down to wait out the crisis. Others are dealing with dramatically reduced orders and sales. Our tourism industry collapsed overnight and businesses are dealing with crippling uncertainty.
We will be dealing with the economic aftershocks for a long time to come and, make no mistake, all sectors of the economy will be affected.
Economists, both within my department and externally, are anticipating significant falls in GDP during quarter two of this year – while holding out some hope for a rebound later in the year.
A small number of companies remain open with strict social distancing measures in place. Others – like the retail and health sectors – have stepped forward and even expanded to play a crucial role in supporting the effort to tackle COVID-19.
In the darkest of times, I have seen the best of business; companies have repurposed production lines; workers have volunteered to help wherever they can; staff facing lay-off have asked how they can use their skills to fill gaps created by sickness; others have offered support in sourcing and importing vital resources.
However, I am acutely aware of the hardship facing many business owners and workers.
We are rolling out grants to some of our most severely affected businesses. As far as I am aware, this is the largest financial package ever made to local businesses. These schemes which in normal circumstances would take months to put in place, are being delivered in a fraction of that time.
And I do want to go on record to state my appreciation for the hard work of the officials in my Department, as well as in the Department of Finance, in getting to this stage.
The first payments under the Small Business Grant Scheme were made nine days after the original announcement. Since then nearly 15,000 businesses have received £10,000 grants totalling almost £150m.
I know from speaking to owners that these payments are helping businesses to survive, to pay their staff and to plan for the future.
This scheme has now been extended to include small industrial businesses that qualify for industrial de-rating. This expansion will cover around 2,500 additional businesses.
The Executive has agreed a £25,000 grant scheme, which opens on 20th April. It is crucial to our hospitality, tourism, leisure and retail sectors which have been hit particularly badly. Over 4,000 businesses, many of which were among the first to take a hit from this crisis, will benefit.
Businesses will be required to apply for this scheme and I would encourage those who consider themselves eligible to apply as soon as the scheme opens for applications. We aim to make the process as easy as possible and in order to achieve this, Department of Finance officials have advised that the portal will be fully operable by 20th April.
I can assure businesses that as soon as applications have been verified, then the grant will be paid – we will not be waiting until the end of the application process before starting to process payments. The scheme will run over the next month and will deliver much need funds to ease cash flow problems of some of our hardest hit businesses.
The Executive has committed to providing a three month rates holiday to all businesses from April to June. It is my view that this is the one of the most effective ways to support the sustainability of the wider economy and I believe should be extended further. For many companies, rates are a huge outlay and it would make a positive contribution if the NI Executive was able to match other parts of the United Kingdom in this respect.
The UK-wide job retention scheme - which I lobbied long and hard for - allows businesses to keep people on their payroll by providing up to £2,500 a month for furloughed employees.
Self-employed workers can also receive 80% of their taxable profit over the last three years capped at £2,500 per month. This applies to those with trading profits below £50,000 per year.
These are critical measures which are providing support to tens of thousands of businesses and workers across Northern Ireland .
I am acutely aware that there are others across Northern Ireland facing financial hardship which have not been able to access any of the existing national or regional grant schemes. We are working out how best we might assist them.
At its meeting on the 10th of April the Executive agreed the need for a new scheme. A budget has been identified for a further scheme and we are examining how to deliver this money to where it is so desperately needed. We will look to address as many of the gaps as we can.
The increases to both working tax credit and universal credit by £1,000 per year will also help to protect our most vulnerable. The Coronavirus Business Interruption Loans Scheme is a further valuable support tool. It is a crucial step in getting much needed cashflow flowing to firms during this difficult period.
Our National Government has undertaken a huge amount of public borrowing to support the economy in the short term.
It is important that the support provided both nationally and by the Executive is deployed to limit job losses so that come the recovery, workers can come off furlough and back into the workplace.
As the impact of the crisis bites deeper, assistance must be targeted to those who need it most.
The shutdown of many industries in Northern Ireland, the collapse in footfall around our towns and cities and emerging survey evidence all indicate that the reality is that there has already been widespread furloughing of workers by many firms.
Invest NI client companies have notified it that over 30,000 jobs had been furloughed. Outside of INI’s client base many more will have been furloughed too. However, it is worth noting that we have seen many examples of large scale furloughing of workers by firms, but what we are not, as yet, seeing are many example of large scale redundancies by firms.
In assessing all the available economic indicators and data, my department’s economists fear that the number workers in Northern Ireland directly impacted by the shutdown could well go beyond 200,000, with widespread job losses too, potentially as many as 25,000 in the short term.
Outside of the labour market, their analysis also suggests that house prices look set to be negatively impacted and trade and investment both appear set to stall.
However, while this analysis is based on assumptions and indicators which can, and do, change, we can say with certainty that the economic impact is set to be deep and far reaching. Many across Northern Ireland will need ongoing support.
The latest information on every support scheme currently available to business can be found at the nibusinessinfo website. I urge any business owner in need of assistance to check it regularly.
There has been significant pressure on the aviation industry, haulage and ferry companies which has led to a dramatic reduction in our air and sea connectivity. This is very important issue which I continue to raise with Government Ministers in London.
In respect of Northern Ireland’s vital air connectivity with Great Britain, my officials, along with those from Finance and Infrastructure, are working with the UK Department for Transport to provide support to maintain NI air connectivity during this COVID19 crisis period.
Indeed, Ministers Mallon and Murphy and I, wrote yesterday to the UK Chancellor in support of the DfT business case seeking UK Government support to maintain strong air links between here and GB. I am hopeful that this intervention will realise a support package.
Aviation will also have an important role to play in the recovery of our tourism industry. I am conscious that the tourism and hospitality sector was one of the first sectors to experience the impact of Covid-19.
I want to thank those who are on the front line and working in vital industries such as food manufacturing, telecoms and retail.
Our energy supply has remained constant throughout this crisis. Turning on the heating, flicking a light switch and cooking a meal are all made possible by the thousands of energy workers who are making sure everyone has the energy they require.
I am planning to speak to Minister Kwarteng about how the energy system is coping across the UK and my department is maintaining solid communication at all levels of the system locally.
I know that generators, network operators, suppliers and those representing consumer interests have all stepped forward in recent weeks to ensure that people’s needs are met. I want to take this opportunity to thank them
The safety for workers must remain an absolute priority. If people can work at home, they should, but for those who cannot, the work environment should be safe and follow the public health guidance.
In response to some concerns raised, the Stakeholder Engagement Forum was convened, comprising unions and business groups. It has provided advice on priority business sectors and codes of practice which I will bring to the Executive on Friday.
We already have examples of successful social distancing at work where production lines have been extended, break times staggered, canteen tables restricted to one per person and increased cleaning and physical measures such as perspex panels to minimise contact have been introduced.
We will make sure that this good work continues and I will do everything within my power to ensure that we have a safe workforce, Working with industry will save lives.
Our economy is changing very significantly leading to a change in direction for many businesses.
However we know that improving the digital skills of our workforce will enhance our competiveness and increase productivity in the long term.
I also believe investing in digital skills provides an opportunity to reinforce our competitive advantage in areas such as cyber security, data analytics and robotics.
So, I want to provide individuals, particularly those who are furloughed, with the opportunity to improve their digital skills.
To begin the process we intend to provide a range of online digital courses via our careers portal. These courses will be free for everyone and provide an opportunity for individuals to use their time at home to prepare for the future.
My department is also helping people seeking alternative employment. Our careers advisers are supporting people in matching their skills and experience to opportunities in demand including full-time, part-time and temporary roles. There is high demand in sectors such as health, retail and agri-food.
Our universities and colleges have been forced to close their doors for face-to-face learning but they have remained active in the fight against COVID-19. Students and staff at our Higher and Further Education institutions have been providing and creating personal protective equipment, joining the research for a vaccine and volunteering and joining the health service workforce.
I am acutely aware that the stopping of face-to-face teaching has had a particular impact on how vocational qualifications will be awarded. I have instructed my officials to work with CCEA and other regulators as a matter of urgency to identify the fairest way to issue grades.
I am aware that the downturn in the hospitality sector will have had an impact on students who often work in that sector. With this in mind, I have requested an extension to increase student hardship funds, as we move into the third semester, which I hope can be doubled. I will be discussing this with Executive colleagues.
In this severest of times when our resilience is being tested, I cannot promise that every business or every job will be saved because this crisis will leave no one unscathed. But I will do all I can to counteract the severest impacts and protect the livelihoods which support families and communities across Northern Ireland.
We will get through this. And when we do, I believe the measures we have put in place will form the foundations on which our businesses can build our economic recovery.
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