Stormont ministers welcome fresh Treasury wage support

Stormont ministers have welcomed financial commitments from the Treasury to help pay workers whose employers are forced to close due to renewed lockdowns.

The powersharing executive had been lobbying the Government for additional support, insisting the devolved administration did not have the resources to absorb the economic impact of another period of stringent coronavirus restrictions.

Under the six-month scheme announced by Rishi Sunak, employees of firms forced to close due to new restrictions will have two thirds of their wages paid by the state.

Mr Sunak also announced an uplift in business grants on offer to English businesses – a move that will see the Stormont Executive handed another £200 million for any similar initiatives in Northern Ireland.

First Minister Arlene Foster discussed the package with Mr Sunak on Friday afternoon.

“This is something that will take effect across the United Kingdom,” she said.

“It’s something that we have been pressing for to help companies who have had to stop trading.”

Finance minister Conor Murphy said extra support provided some comfort to the executive as it considered a series of “very tough decisions”.

“The idea that we’re no longer facing a cliff edge on the first of November is welcome,” he said.

“The additional money that the executive has got to support the local economy is also welcome.

“We have some very, very tough decisions to take in the time ahead.

“The virus is continuing to spiral in a very worrying way and I think this allows the executive some comfort in order to try and face into some of those difficult decisions.”

Hospitality Ulster said the support could provide a vital cushion for many struggling businesses.

“We have made it clear over the last number of weeks that additional restrictions on the hospitality industry without extra financial support, and in particular a targeted scheme for protecting thousands of jobs and livelihoods, would result in total business failure,” said chief executive Colin Neill.

“We are hopeful that this support will be a cushion for many hospitality businesses.”

Mr Neill said there was now a need to clarify whether business in the north west that had closed due recent localised restrictions could avail of additional support.

“The hospitality sector in the likes of Derry City and Strabane District council area has really been forced to close through prohibitive restrictions, so we must get clarity on what closure means and that it is interpreted as broadly as it can be,” he said.

Business representative organisation Belfast Chamber warned that another lockdown would result in profound and permanent damage to the Northern Ireland economy.

“A lockdown with support for staff wages is better than a lockdown without any support, but we should be in no doubt whatsoever that another lockdown would still do profound and perhaps permanent damage to the local economy,” said Belfast Chamber chief executive Simon Hamilton.

“The Chancellor’s announcement today rightly protects staff but doesn’t support businesses which will continue to incur considerable costs to stay alive.“