Good afternoon everyone. COVID-19 is undoubtedly one of the most severe health crises we have ever faced – the daily reports across the news channels and climbing death toll is a sober reminder to all of us about the seriousness posed by this virus– but it is also delivering a massive shock to the local economy.
Over the past few weeks we have seen unprecedented action from our National Government – action that may be radical, but action that is entirely necessary, if we are to see off the challenge of COVID-19 and emerge on the other side
I hope that people do recognise in this very turbulent environment that help is at hand, and we are starting to see it reach those that need it most.
Since the Small Business Grant Scheme went live last Friday, 10,000 small businesses have already been received financial assistance through the £10K grant scheme. As of today a further 3,200 are being processed. So in the first week since the launch of this scheme, we have processed claims for around half of those eligible companies.
That represents over £100 million that has already been paid out to small businesses across Northern Ireland and a further £170m in grants being paid out in the coming days.
For those small business owners, who have not yet received their payment but think they are eligible, I would encourage them to go to nibusinessinfo to register today.
We are now focusing on the £25,000 scheme. This scheme will see grants of £25,000 to around 4,000 businesses in our beleaguered tourism, hospitality and retail sectors. We will be making further announcements on this next week and I will be working with my colleagues across the Executive to ensure that we can get this out as soon as possible.
Whilst good work is being made, and whilst we are ahead of other regions of the UK, more work is required to ensure that support is delivered to those businesses who need it.
I would like to see the 2,500 businesses who benefit from industrial derating and have a rateable value of below 15K to be supported. And I have urged my Executive colleagues to consider extending the rates relief scheme, so it is at least as generous as elsewhere in the UK.
These are obviously decisions to be taken by the whole Executive, and need to be considered alongside bids from other Departments, but they are measures that would be of huge significance to the local economy.
The Job Retention Scheme is an unprecedented intervention in the Northern Ireland economy –some 17,000 jobs notified to Invest NI – jobs that could have been lost altogether - have been furloughed, and this demonstrates the importance of this scheme.
However, greater clarity is urgently needed around the scheme however and I would urge both Treasury and HMRC to get more information out to employers without delay.
Whilst the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loans Scheme is also a valuable support tool - I am aware that some firms are finding it challenging to secure money.
I spoke to Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Steve Barkley about this earlier this week and hope the Chancellors statement will clarify what collateral is required to secure finance.
For those who are self-employed – delay in payments and gaps for those who became self-employed in the last year are issues that need to be urgently addressed by Central Government – and I have written to Treasury encouraging a solution to be found.
Full details of every support scheme currently available to business in Northern Ireland can be found at the nibusinessinfo website which is updated regularly.
Whilst there are huge challenges in the economy right now I am also heartened by what our businesses are doing. They are innovating, repurposing production lines and stepping up to help in this time of need.
More than 40 companies have volunteered to assist in providing support to produce various PPE requirements. More than 30 companies have offered to participate in manufacturing consortia to make ventilators.
The local business community is doing us proud and we want to thank them for all of their efforts to help now and in the future.
In the first few weeks of this crisis we saw an immediate impact on our tourism and hospitality sector.
But now we are seeing challenges emerge in other areas of our economy. Northern Ireland is reliant on our air and sea connectivity; but with significant pressures on the aviation industry and on ferry companies we have seen a dramatic reduction in connectivity.
The haulage industry is under tremendous stress – with fewer return loads as a direct result of the impact on manufacturers in the GB market and governments ensuring that their domestic markets are protected.
This week I have spoken to Alok Sharma, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Grant Shapps, the Secretary of State for Transport and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Steve Barclay to remind them that strong transport links between GB and NI is of vital importance to our economy and our supply chains, particularly our food supply chains.
This morning I spoke to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis to press upon him the urgent need for a solution to this issue to be found without delay.
The past week has also seen a focus on worker safety. I make no apology for saying it – the safety of everyone in the workplace is a priority for us all. I salute those who are on the front line and working in vital industries – industries such as food manufacturing, retail and energy.
Let me be clear again, every employer has a duty to provide a safe workplace.
If people can work at home, they should, but for those who cannot, the work environment should be safe and follow the HSENI / PHA guidance.
In response to recent concerns, I convened the Engagement Forum some days ago, comprised of unions and business groups. It has met twice this week and is working towards providing collective advice on the measures required to protect the safety of key workers at those businesses that remain open.
The Health and Safety Executive NI has experienced significant pressures when dealing with a high volume of inquires – 1800% increase – and I will ensure that each and every one of those complaints is responded to.
I am pleased that we are seeing great efforts from companies to introduce the necessary measures and the vast majority are complying with our requests. We have examples where production lines have been extended, break times staggered, canteen tables restricted to one per person, increased cleaning and physical measures such as perspex panels to minimise contact have been introduced.
Working with industry will save lives. Support in key messaging from industry, trade bodies and trade unions has all helped ensure the protection of workers in line with UKG and PHA guidelines.
We want to make sure that this good work continues and we will do everything that is within our power to ensure that we have a safe workplace for those businesses that remain open.
Before I finish I want to pay my personal tribute to our frontline workers. Our health and social care staff who, of course, deserve our thanks.
But I also want to say thanks to the frontline workers that day and night are behind the scenes to keep food on our table, our homes and businesses heated and lit, and our economy moving.