Mr. Deputy Speaker, thank you for giving me another opportunity to address members on the critical issue of the economy as this crisis continues to unfold.
It is now two months since the dramatic, but necessary, changes to our way of life were first implemented. Sadly, what was once unimaginable is now the new reality.
I took office just under four short months ago. Back then, I set out my ambition to introduce parental bereavement leave, grow our tourism sector, stimulate investment and job creation and, importantly, direct more funding into skills for our future generations. Yet, in what seemed like a heartbeat, the brutal impact of coronavirus on the health of our population and on our economy has transformed these priorities.
Make no mistake, the top priority is still the preservation of life. And this will remain our primary focus until such times that the threat of COVID-19 has sufficiently diminished. Our next, and necessary, priority is to mitigate the impacts on our economy as best we can and do all in our power to aid recovery.
We have lived through downturns before but this is different. The usual remedy of encouraging people to go out and spend money to boost the economy is not possible or, indeed appropriate, right now.
The Executive, just like our counterparts in London, has acted swiftly and decisively. We have redirected resources to cushion the devastating early impacts and we will continue to do so. This week, we received Executive approval for £40m to set up a hardship fund for micro-businesses. This will aid thousands of our smallest enterprises as well as charities and social enterprises.
The financial grant schemes for businesses, rates relief, bank lending scheme, job retention scheme and support for the self-employed have been essential in preventing the economy from imploding. The painstakingly deliberate pace of developing government policy has been replaced with immediate action to deliver the targeted assistance that protects as many incomes as possible. As of yesterday, over 19,000 payments of £10,000 have been issued to small businesses, totalling £190 million. We have received over 3000 applications for the recently opened £25k scheme, with over 800 payments having been made already.
Be in no doubt - we are truly in unchartered waters and normal rules no longer apply. By effectively putting our economy in a deep freeze, allowing employers to retain staff by furloughing them, we have ushered many businesses away from failure. However, there is a direct link between the population’s health and the health of the economy. The longer people are away from the workplace the greater the impact will be on our economy. Crucially, however, this significant government intervention will also assist recovery. Businesses can ramp up more quickly when they retain their workforce and institutional knowledge.
We are prepared for the possibility that economic recovery will not be as rapid as the decline. Government, both nationally and locally, will again need to support businesses across various sectors.
However, I believe in the Northern Ireland business community.
Many businesses faced the economic downturn in 2008 and emerged more efficient. Today, they are adapting once more - demonstrating agility and resilience in the face of adversity. They have stepped up to the challenge by doing what is necessary. Some companies have repurposed production lines to build ventilators. Some are importing PPE. Others have found new ways to reach and support customers.
There is no such thing as a non-essential business in a modern economy. The importance of the interconnected supply chains and support networks has demonstrated our reliance on those who produce and sell food, keep the lights on and keep freight moving. New business models are already beginning to emerge as a result of the disruption. Many companies have become more local, and less global in the short to medium term.
Our daily work patterns are transforming. We have all become much more accustomed to working remotely, using technology to hold video conferences or conducting business without the need to travel.
Many who are preparing to join the workforce are now learning from home. Further Education Colleges and Universities are delivering support to students through virtual and remote learning. This is essential because a fully skilled workforce will form part of the foundation of our recovery. This week I announced that we have removed the 25% employer contribution to Skills Focus - this will allow furloughed staff to gain accredited qualifications and return to work upskilled.
Yesterday, my department launched a pilot post-graduate course in Software Development with Queen’s University, offering a fully funded part-time course for individuals whose careers have been impacted by Covid-19. My department has also partnered with the Open University to provide online learning that is free for workers.
And while, this year, it is impossible for our Further and Higher Education students to sit exams in the conventional way, it is good that arrangement are in place for them to receive their qualifications and move forward into the workplace or on to further study. We will need their skills when the time comes.
The darkest days of this economic disaster are not all behind us yet. We still need to help businesses survive. Incomes must be protected. But we also need to start plotting a course to recovery.
This week the Executive announced it would match fund £562m for City and Growth deals and £55m for Inclusive Futures Fund. And it will provide up to an additional £100m for complementary projects in other areas outside the North West. This is a crucial injection of funding for all regions of Northern Ireland. Under the four City and Growth Deals, my department will play a central role in delivering this investment.
We will support important new projects in innovation, in the digital economy, in skills and in tourism. Set alongside UK government investment, this raises funding for the Belfast area to £700m, while funding for Mid, South and West is £252m. Funding for the North West rises to £210m and Causeway Coast to £72m. Not only is this investment essential as we rebuild, it will continue to boost our economy over the next decade.
While I remain firmly focused on today, I am also looking towards tomorrow. I am working closely with our business community, our hospitality sector and tourism industry to help them take the first steps to recovery. I have been in discussions with representatives of business about how we can get things moving again by supporting business that can work safely to get back to work. I am re-establishing the Economic Advisory Group that was previously in place to advise my predecessors.
I want to ensure that we concentrate on rebuilding an economy that focusses on the areas where we are genuinely world class, such as tourism, and where the greatest opportunities for our young people lie. I have set up the Tourism Recovery Steering Group to bring the most influential figures in that sector together to begin the process of bringing their industry back to where it needs to be. Yesterday, I sat in on the first meeting of the Tourism Working Group, established for the sector to identify the key issues the Steering Group needs to address.
Yes, our focus is still on fighting the most immediate and severest impacts of this crisis but it is important that we also start to get the economy moving again and gradually see people safely return to work. The truth is that we don’t know for certain how long this disruption will last, but we simply cannot shut the economy down for a significant period of time without suffering catastrophic consequences.
We stand ready to facilitate a safe return to work – when the time is right. This should not be viewed as tradeoff between people’s health and the economy. The two are inextricably linked and it is important that government, business and wider society recognises and accepts that. I will continue to support our economy through this period of adversity but I also pledge to do all that I can to restore its confidence. That is why we need to be decisive in our policy choices, adapt to the new global business environment quickly and focus on the sectors where Northern Ireland can genuinely be a world leader.