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Belfast firm We Are Vertigo puts 200 staff on furlough but looks towards future

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Gareth and Lorna Murphy operate two Belfast adventure centres

Gareth and Lorna Murphy operate two Belfast adventure centres

Gareth and Lorna Murphy operate two Belfast adventure centres

The owner of Belfast adventure centres We Are Vertigo has said he's put staff on furlough but is making plans for rebuilding the business in future.

Gareth Murphy and his wife Lorna own two inflatable parks in south Belfast and the city's Titanic Quarter.

Now the company has put its 200 staff on furlough - but Mr Murphy said it's also making plans on how to rebuild the leisure business, including free passes for children whose birthday parties at the venue were cancelled because of the Covid-19 shutdown.

He said the decision to close the adventure parks had been made a few days before the Prime Minister's order for non-essential businesses to close. Staff were also told of plans to close ahead of the announcement of the Chancellor's job retention scheme, under which the government funds 80% of the wages of staff who have been temporarily laid-off, or furloughed, because there's no more work for them. Mr Murphy said: "We were able to notice a lot of concern with parents booking parties.

There was a lot of anxiety so we took the decision to close a few days before the compulsory order to close, and the announcement from the Chancellor of the furlough scheme.

"We had to tell our staff at that point that we were in a grave situation and were having to close. We were then in a process of closing down and cancelling catering orders - then we were speaking to suppliers in places like food service firm Hendersons, drinks firm Counterpoint and bakery Irwins, who all agreed to make donations."

Suppliers then contributed to care packages which were then dropped off to vulnerable people living within a three-mile radius of either of the premises.

"We got several hundred packs out to the local community," Mr Murphy said. Then, following the Chancellor's announcement, staff were put on the furlough scheme.

"We now have over 200 staff on furlough, which means we are able to keep all staff and get them all protected and looked after so that they're ready to come back to employment when all this is over."

Mr Murphy explained there was an uncertain picture for business and the economy. "We're prepared to be flexible and adapt but we don't know what the world will look like afterwards," he said.

"Because we've had to close, children's birthday parties which had been booked have now been postponed.

"It's hard for children to process not being at school, and being at home and not having birthday parties.

"We could feel that anxiety so that's why we've said that every child in Northern Ireland aged between four and 10 who celebrate their birthday between March 1 and May 31 can have a free pass when we reopen.

"We've also put together a competition to win 50 free parties for p7s before they embark on their secondary education. It's been tough for p7s to have had this abrupt ending to their primary school."

He added that he expected the company would have to apply for loan funding to help it through coming months.

"In principle the government help is all there but we now just need to see it coming through to help the supply chain. We still get bills for insurance and from suppliers, etc, which have to be paid and which would normally be funded by our cash flow."

He said his firm and others could never have envisaged an event like Covid-19: "When you look at business planning, you look at different permutations of what can go right or wrong. Nobody would be planning for a pandemic which could lead to a global cessation of business.

"But we're a resilient business and resilient society. The main priority now is safety of the family and staff. We can deal with the business afterwards."

Belfast Telegraph