Just over one-third of a £10m relief scheme released to support 'wet pubs' has been paid out, the Department for the Economy has revealed.
It comes as the hospitality industry marks one year on after pubs and bars first closed their doors to limit the spread of Covid-19 in the run-up to the first UK-wide lockdown.
The Wet Pubs Business Support Scheme, which opened on January 11, was created to provide £10.6m to drink-only public houses. They were also shut down between July 4 and September 23 last year. Of the £10.6m, only £3.8m has been paid out, the DfE said.
A spokesperson told the Belfast Telegraph that it received 577 valid returned forms, despite identifying more than 700 businesses eligible for the scheme.
The spokesperson said: "Since the Wet Pubs Scheme opened on 11 January, 2021, 715 supplementary information forms have been issued to businesses identified via initial pre-eligibility checks, with 577 valid forms returned. There have been 412 payments made to date."
The amount paid out was based on a property's Net Annual Value for rating purposes.
There were 293 payments totalling £1.2m to those with an NAV of £800, 102 payments totalling£292,800 to those with a NAV of £1,200 while 17 payments valued at £2.3m were paid to wet pubs with a NAV of £1,600.
Colin Neill, chief executive of Hospitality Ulster, said he believed the smaller than expected uptake of the scheme could be attributed to some pubs expanding to include food during Covid-19.
“The department is telling us that some pub owners are saying they managed to open and serve food during that period and I think that all boils down to the pub industry being really honest,” he said.
Gerard Keenan, who runs Dan’s Bar on the Springfield Road, Belfast with his wife Sinead, said the scheme was a lifeline to his business.
“Everyone was scrambling back then and some ventured into offering food which would have made them ineligible for the scheme but we stayed closed from St Patrick’s Day,” he said.
The publican, who reopened for three weeks at the end of September, said he believes, “there are a lot of people who won’t come out of this”, adding: “I’m afraid of reopening if the two-metre rule is still in place. We have capacity for around 60 people but with the two-metre rule we can only hold 12 people. We couldn’t survive on that.”
Mr Neill added: “What ever underspend there is should be redirected to the trade. Our traditional pubs, when they have opened, have done so under very tight restrictions. It’s been exactly one year since hospitality was forced to close. For wet pubs, they’ve only had 23 days of business in that year. Many are debt ridden and will need support when protection schemes end.”
A DfE spokesperson said: “The money not utilised in the Wet Pubs Business Support Scheme has been used to underpin funding in other DfE Covid business support schemes.”
Mr Neill said it was not clear if the lower application rate could be down to some pub closures.
“We won’t really know the full effect of Covid on closures until July or August,” he added.
In today’s Business Telegraph, two bars are advertised for sale, Longfield Inn in Eglinton, Co Derry, and Rex Bar on the Shankill Road, Belfast.
SDLP Foyle MLA Sinead McLaughlin, deputy chair of the economy committee, said she was disappointed in the underspend as the sector is “in a dire situation and remains at risk of serious long term impact.
She said: “It is also important to remember that as well as being a very bad situation for the businesses, we also have thousands of workers at risk of losing their employment. This is a tragic situation.”