£2bn-plus spent on coronavirus pandemic in North, report finds

Final outlay expected to be much higher as some responses yet to be costed

Teacher Joanne Conlon with pupils on their first day in class P1 at St John the Baptist Primary School in west Belfast, on Tuesday, as the pandemic continues unabated. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

Teacher Joanne Conlon with pupils on their first day in class P1 at St John the Baptist Primary School in west Belfast, on Tuesday, as the pandemic continues unabated. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

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More than £2 billion (€2.25 billion) has been spent on the response to the coronavirus pandemic in the North, according to a report published on Wednesday by the Northern Ireland Audit Office.

The office described the costs as “significant” but said the final figure was expected to be much higher as Northern Ireland was still progressing through the pandemic and some responses had yet to be costed.

It also does not include the Northern Ireland cost of the UK’s job retention scheme for furloughed workers, which according to the report was almost 250,000 employees – or almost 30 per cent of the North’s workforce – as of August.

By July 24th, the UK government had confirmed it would provide £2.2 billion in Covid-19 funding to Northern Ireland.

The North’s Department of Health reported 49 new cases of Covid-19 on Tuesday, bringing the total number of cases identified in Northern Ireland since the start of the pandemic to 7,294.

No further deaths were reported, leaving the number of coronavirus-related fatalities recorded by the Department at 560.

The majority of pupils in the North returned to school on Tuesday. Education minister, Peter Weir, warned there would be cases of coronavirus in schools.

“Undoubtedly there’s likely to be some level of interruption in terms of education, but across the board I think we want to ensure that schools remain open,” he told the BBC.

In South Armagh, the P2/3 class at Jonesborough Primary School has been advised to self-isolate for 14 days after a pupil tested positive for coronavirus.

The report, An Overview of the Northern Ireland Executive’s response to Covid-19, is published by the North’s Comptroller and Auditor General, Kieran Connolly.

The challenge of responding to the pandemic, Mr Connolly said, was “unlike any the Northern Ireland Executive has ever faced”, and the scale of its response was “similarly unprecedented.”

The Executive, he said, “was required to quickly introduce multiple measures supporting vulnerable individuals and businesses facing a major reduction in income.

“My report gives an overview of these measures, but no assessment of the value for money of individual measures has been made at this point,” he said.

According to the report the anticipated spending by government departments in the North on 84 separate initiatives to tackle coronavirus is estimated at £1.74 billion, while the estimated cost of other UK-wide schemes which apply to Northern Ireland, including welfare payments, comes to £465 million.

Approximately 70 per cent of total estimated costs related to activities across three government departments.

This included £568 million by the department of the health “working at the front line, treating infected patients”, £408m by the department of the economy “offering support to local businesses struggling to survive as a result of public compliance with social distancing and isolation regulations”, and £252 million by the department of finance, which offered “a range of business and rate reliefs for individuals and businesses”.

Mr Connolly said there would “undoubtedly be lessons to learn” and the report would provide the Audit Office “with the basis for a programme of work evaluating how public money has been spent during this period”.

Personal protective equipment

As an initial step, he said, the Audit Office would examine arrangements around the supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) - the cost of which was likely to be in excess of £200m - as well as the support provided to lessen the impact of the pandemic on vulnerable groups and the wider impact of Covid-19 on public sector income.

Concerns were also raised in the report about three coronavirus-related Ministerial Directions, all of which related to Business Support Grant Schemes launched by the Department of the Economy.

Grants paid to local firms by the department included £25,000 for hospitality, retail and tourism businesses, a £10,000 grant for small companies and a micro-business hardship fund.

Given the tight timeframes, officials were concerned as to whether they could provide sufficient evidence of value for money, or assurance on the risk of loss through error or fraud.

A spokesperson for the department said it was “content that it took the necessary, swift action to support tens of thousands of businesses facing serious difficulties, or failure, caused by the Covid-19 crisis.

“The measures taken by the minister were supported by the Executive. The evaluation of these schemes will take place in due course.” Additional reporting - PA.

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