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£95m retail voucher scheme to aid economic recovery in Northern Ireland put on hold

Stormont scheme to help economy deferred over Covid concerns


Sinead McLaughlin

Sinead McLaughlin

Sinead McLaughlin

A £95m retail voucher scheme to encourage people to spend money in shops to aid economic recovery has been deferred.

It was to have been launched and run by the Department for the Economy early this year, with pre-paid cards of up to £100 to be sent to individuals all over Northern Ireland.

But the high level of coronavirus infections and continued closure of non-essential retail had created concerns over its viability before the deadline for spending at the end of the 2020/21 financial year.

The department had said on Monday night it could not give an update around timing of the scheme and whether money could be held until the new financial year begins in April.

But officials confirmed to MLAs on the scrutiny committee yesterday that it would not go ahead.

Finance director Sharon Hetherington said a fresh bid for funding would be made but that £140m would be requested - allowing for a £100 card per person.

A department spokesman said: "The scheme has been deferred as it is clearly not appropriate to encourage shoppers out on to our high streets given the current situation with the virus and the fact that much retail and hospitality remains closed."

Regarding the £95m which would go unspent, he said "it will be for the Executive to decide on how the funding is now allocated".

SDLP economy spokesperson Sinead McLaughlin said: "I have been saying for weeks that this scheme could not be safely delivered in this financial year. It is a relief that officials now recognise this."

The Foyle MLA said speculation that the Eat Out to Help Out scheme in August contributing to rising rates of the virus should have been enough to warn the department off such a scheme at this time.

She added: "I am very concerned that the economy minister and her officials did not fully think through the conditions of the scheme and its roll-out. I remain worried that unless the scheme is designed very carefully that it will not do what it is intended to do.

"This is to help locally owned retail and hospitality businesses to survive and to stimulate the traditional high street shopping environments, while also helping our citizens.

"My fear is that unless the scheme is very carefully designed it will simply provide an additional boost to the profits of the major supermarket chains, which they do not need."

Belfast Telegraph