This is the most serious health and economic crisis any of us has ever lived through and Northern Ireland needs bravery, compassion, support and leadership to get through it.
The Minister said it is her priority to mitigate against the impact on our economy. She emphasised that help is available and highlighted measures - introduced by both Westminster and the Executive - to support businesses and employees including the Job Retention Scheme, the freezing of business rates and the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme.
She then updated MLAs on the small business grant schemes announced last week.
“The small business grant schemes will inject some £370million to support tens of thousands of our most vulnerable businesses to help with cash flow. The administration of a scheme involving so many payments was never going to be straight forward. We are endeavouring to deliver in days something which in normal circumstances would take months. In making this operational we are ahead of where our counterparts in England Scotland and Wales are at this point.
“I can now update the House that the ratings system will be used as the mechanism to identify eligible businesses in Northern Ireland. Payment will then be made directly into the bank accounts of those businesses who details are currently available. Last year’s rating list will be the basis for payment.
“I want to make sure that payments are made directly to businesses, for the benefit of businesses. Currently, we hold bank details for just over 9,000 of small businesses who qualify and obviously payment can be expedited to those companies. Our focus will be on getting this out as quickly as possible. I am pleased to report that an online web portal will be set up this week for eligible businesses - for whom we do not hold bank details - to register.
“Our immediate focus has been on putting in place a system for processing the £10,000 grant. However, I can assure colleagues that we are also working hard to put in place processes for the £25,000 grant for our hospitality, tourism and retail sectors as soon as possible. I hope to be in a position to provide an update on that to you in due course.
“I am also seeking to identify any gaps in the measures that have been announced both nationally and in Northern Ireland and I hope to be able to be in a position to respond further to meet the particular needs of our businesses here; particularly in relation to self-employed people, clarity for those on zero hour contracts and for those businesses that cannot avail of some of the support packages announced.”
The Minister thanked those businesses that have stepped up to the challenge by diversifying to support the effort to tackle the impact of Covid-19.