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Most Northern Ireland firms shut with 80% planning to furlough employees


Damage: Simon Hamilton

Damage: Simon Hamilton

Damage: Simon Hamilton

Just 12% of firms in Northern Ireland remain physically open while 80% of businesses are planning to use the Government's job retention scheme to furlough staff, a new survey has shown.

According to a fresh survey of companies, charities and social enterprises across four chambers of commerce, around a third of firms say their staff are now working at home.

Meanwhile, less than half of firms say they are eligible for the Executive's grant schemes.

And fewer than one in five companies says they have applied for the Government-backed Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan.

And of those 80% of companies using the job retention scheme, businesses say they are putting 58% of workers on furlough.

That means they are not able to work, but the Government will cover 80% of salaries up to £2,500 a month for at least a three-month period.

The retail sector has seen the largest proportion of staff put on the scheme, with around 93% of workers, among those surveyed by the chambers.

The survey of around 250 organisations was carried out by Belfast Chamber, Causeway Chamber, Londonderry Chamber of Commerce and Newry Chamber of Commerce and Trade between April 8 and 11.

"We are all well aware that Covid-19 is having a profound effect on our health service, but it is also abundantly clear from this survey that the pandemic is also doing huge damage to the health of our economy," Belfast Chamber chief executive Simon Hamilton said.

"Almost half of the businesses are closed and are no longer trading.

"That is hundreds of businesses employing thousands of people with no income, rising debts and overheads and growing concerns about the future.

"It is little wonder that 80% of businesses have said that they are likely to use the Government's job retention scheme.

"What is startling is the sheer volume of employees that they intend to furlough. Among those firms intending to use the scheme, some 58% of their employees will be placed in furlough.

"That equates to over 5,000 employees across the businesses responding to the four chambers' survey.

"We know that it isn't business as usual during this emergency, but what we are seeing is a virtual economic shutdown which can only create real worries about how our economy recovers."

Companies showed mixed reaction to the Government's loan scheme.

While one firm surveyed said it was a "very positive experience, application was straightforward, and the grant processed exceptionally quickly", many were critical of the process, with some saying it is "slow and difficult", while others say they are still waiting to hear if they have been successful.

Some of the main concerns for firms are around cash flow issues, and worries surrounding the build-up of VAT and overheads.

Several respondents to the survey also want the Government to begin to set out a "clear strategy to lift the lockdown and restart the economy".

"One of the earliest announcements by the Chancellor of support for business to deal with the effect Covid-19 was having on the economy was the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme," Karen Yates, chief executive of Causeway Chamber, said.

"However, uptake among the businesses we surveyed is low, with fewer than one in five businesses applying for a Government-backed loan."

And Derry Chamber chief executive Paul Clancy said that while members are "very grateful for the support from Government and the Executive that they have received so far, many of the respondents to our survey have expressed frustration at the gaps in some of those support schemes and the slowness many are experiencing in getting the help they are entitled to".

Belfast Telegraph