North’s businesses being ‘killed off’ during Covid-19 pandemic

Calls for hardship fund for those outside supports with one in 10 young now unemployed

Northern Ireland’s business community is being “killed off” by the lack of leadership during the pandemic, the Ulster Unionist Party leader has said.

During an Assembly debate on Tuesday MLAs called for a hardship fund for those excluded from existing coronavirus support packages, which UUP leader Steve Aiken said had affected "thousands of sole traders and micro-businesses."

Minister for the Economy Diane Dodds defended the Executive's approach, and said her department had paid out £340 million (€370m) in schemes to support businesses.

She called for an extension of the UK government’s job retention “furlough” scheme – which has paid the wages of employees during the pandemic but which is due to end on October 31st – but admitted the Executive could not safeguard every job.

Ms Dodds said the economy in Northern Ireland was showing signs of recovery, but the impact of the coronavirus pandemic had been significant.

“This is around seven years of jobs growth wiped out in a matter of weeks,” she said.

Official figures released earlier on Tuesday showed that almost one in 10 young people in Northern Ireland are now unemployed.

Labour market data published by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (Nisra) showed that, overall, the number of people claiming unemployment-related benefits rose by 800 to 62,700 in August, more than double the number in March.

“The data indicates that the quarterly increase was driven by those under 35 years with the youth unemployment rate (16-24 years) estimated at 8.2 per cent.

“Similarly, employment and inactivity rates of those under 35 years worsened (decreasing and increasing respectively) over the quarter,” Nisra noted.

A total of 9,160 redundancies were proposed in the 12 months to the end of August, more than double the number recorded in the previous 12 months.

The North's public transport provider Translink announced on Tuesday that it is to close its Ulsterbus Tours business "due to the long-term impact of Covid-19 on the tours market". About 50 jobs are affected.

The company is attempting to cut £20 million to offset the impact of coronavirus on public transport revenues.

"The Covid-19 economic impact has left public transport globally in a very challenging funding situation," the group's chief executive, Chris Conway, said.

Meanwhile, the North's Minister for Finance Conor Murphy said he intends to bring a proposal to the Executive on Thursday regarding the allocation of £33 million in relief funding for the arts sector that Northern Ireland received from the UK government in June.

The actor Liam Neeson called for the Executive to step in and allocate the funding, which he described as a "lifeline" for theatres and other venues and needed to secure the livelihoods of almost 8,000 people working in the arts.

UUP MLA Mike Nesbitt accused Mr Murphy of “sitting on” the funding for 2½ months as the sector is “crumbling”.

Mr Murphy said money which comes via the Barnett formula – used to allocate funds to the devolved nations – is “not ringfenced for any particular area”, adding that £4 million had already been allocated to the arts.

“I see it very much as economic support as well because arts venues are very much part of our tourism product and economic product so I am very sympathetic to the arguments that were made and I intend to bring a proposition to the Executive on Thursday in relation to that,” he said.

He said he wanted to “make sure it was allocated against economic recovery proposals that the Executive had endorsed, we hadn’t got those over the course of the summer, we now have those”. – Additional reporting: PA