AN online application form for £25,000 grants for businesses in hospitality, tourism and retail in Northern Ireland crashed less than half an hour after going live.
The Stormont Executive’s grant is one of two crucial business support schemes to open on Monday, April 20, along with the UK government’s job retention scheme, in which the UK government pays 80% of a firm’s wage bill.
Businesses who pay rates on a property with a rateable value between £15,001 and £51,000 can apply for the £25K grants, with applications to take up to 15 working days to process. It closes for applications on May 20.
But business owners and groups were exasperated by the crashing of the grant application form.
Clicking on the link to the application form via the website nibusinessinfo.co.uk brought users to an error message, stating “the service is unavailable”.
A spokesperson for Land & Property Services said the portal experienced technical difficulties which resulted in it being unavailable "for less than an hour".
"As soon as this happened the necessary steps were taken to quickly resolve the issue," he said.
"The web portal was tested prior to launch and the unavailability was not related to the volume of people trying to access the site. We apologise for any inconvenience caused. The downtime this morning will not delay the processing of any payments."
Hospitality Ulster chief executive Colin Neill said: “We were told system was being tested and hence delayed to April 20. There is no excuse for the £25k grant portal to fail as soon as it was switched on.”
Hospitality Ulster, which represents thousands of pubs and restaurant owners, also urged ineligible applicants not to use the portal, after reports that some were attempting to use the system despite being unlikely to quality.
The Department for the Economy has been asked how soon the glitch will be fixed.
Ahead of the opening of the scheme, Economy Minister Diane Dodds encouraged firms to apply as soon as possible.
“I am pleased to announce that the £25,000 grant scheme for businesses in the retail, hospitality, tourism and leisure sectors is now open for applications," she said.
"The scheme will run over the next month and will deliver much needed funds to ease the cash flow problems of some of our hardest hit businesses.
“I assure businesses that as soon as applications have been verified, the grant will be paid – we will not be waiting until the end of the application process before starting to process payments.
“I urge anyone who thinks they are eligible for support under this scheme to visit nibusinessinfo and start the process now.”
Meanwhile, the UK government’s job retention scheme opened this morning on the website of HMRC. The system appeared to be operating smoothly this morning.
Under the scheme, an employer can claim for for 80% of employees’ wages plus any employer National Insurance and pension contributions, if they have been temporarily laid off because of coronavirus.
Ian Henry, the president of the NI Chamber of Commerce, said: “The opening of the Job Retention scheme is an important milestone for businesses, providing many with the support they need to protect livelihoods as lockdown continues.
“The government deserves credit for the speed, scale and flexibility of its response to the challenges facing our business communities. The focus should now be on delivering this support to firms on the ground.”