Demand for North’s high street voucher scheme ‘above and beyond’ expectations

Stormont ministers agree to end social distancing rules in shop and theatres

Everyone aged 18 or over in Northern Ireland is eligible to apply for a pre-paid card which will give them £100 to spend in shops, hospitality and other services by November 30th. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

Everyone aged 18 or over in Northern Ireland is eligible to apply for a pre-paid card which will give them £100 to spend in shops, hospitality and other services by November 30th. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

 

More than 440,000 people applied for Northern Ireland’s £100 high street voucher scheme within the first 12 hours of opening on Monday.

The North’s Minister for the Economy, Gordon Lyons, told the BBC this reflected the level of interest in the scheme which was “above and beyond anything we expected”.

The Spent Local scheme, worth £145 million (€170 million), is aimed at boosting local businesses after the drop in footfall during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Everyone aged 18 or over in Northern Ireland is eligible to apply for a pre-paid card which will give them £100 to spend in shops, hospitality and other services by November 30th. They must be used in physical shops and cannot be spent online.

The application portal will remain open until October 25th, with recipients due to receive their first cards from October 4th.

On Monday people attempting to apply online for the card were urged by the Department for the Economy to “be patient” after reports some people had experienced problems or delays applying for the card.

A department spokesman said the website was “currently experiencing some challenges associated with high demand.

“We are working quickly to fix this, but we always knew demand for the Spend Local card would be extremely high which is why we are giving people four weeks to apply,” the spokesman said.

Mr Lyons said that while there may be some delays the website is up and running and is working. With about 1.4 million people entitled to apply for a card, “we expect the portal to be extremely busy in the first few days”, he said.

Covid data

The deaths of four more patients with Covid-19 were reported by the North’s Department of Health on Monday. There were 903 new positive cases of the virus.

A total of 345 patients are receiving hospital treatment for Covid-19 in Northern Ireland, with 28 in intensive care.

Stormont ministers have agreed to end social distancing restrictions for shops, theatres and a number of other indoor settings in Northern Ireland.

At a meeting on Monday evening, ministers decided to remove the one-metre distance requirement for the retail sector, indoor attractions and seated indoor venues.

Ministers have agreed to beef up guidance to business and venue owners to mitigate the impact of allowing a return to full capacity. The advice includes the installation of screening, one-way systems and increased ventilation.

In regard to indoor seated venues, ministers will issue additional guidance to venues advising that they introduce entry policies that require proof of either Covid-19 vaccination, a negative lateral flow test or evidence of a positive PCR test within the previous six months.

Earlier on Monday, Mr Lyons expressed doubt about the use of mandatory vaccine passports in Northern Ireland, saying such a scheme would present “legal and human rights issues”.

With almost 90 per cent of the adult population in the North vaccinated and “the impact that is having on the rate of transmission and hospitalisations”, he told the BBC: “I don’t think that we are in that space anymore.”

The Social Democratic and Labour Party has called for the introduction of a scheme similar to that used to gain entry to hospitality venues in the Republic, while the Deputy First Minister, Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill, has said she is open to such a scheme if it could be demonstrated it could contribute to the “greater good” of tackling the spread of Covid-19. – Additional reporting from PA