ECONOMY Minister Diane Dodds has said there would be "catastrophic consequences" to a prolonged shutdown of Northern Ireland's economy.
She spoke as four chambers of commerce warned that Covid-19 would have a "deep and long-lasting impact" on business - with 60% of firms expecting turnover to be halved.
Addressing the Assembly's ad hoc committee on the Covid-19 response, Ms Dodds said the Executive's priority remained the preservation of life, but added: "It is important that we also start to get the economy moving and gradually see people safely return to work.
"We don't know for certain how long this will continue but we simply cannot shut down the economy for a significant period of time without catastrophic consequences."
She said efforts to get the economy going again should not be viewed as a trade-off against health "as the two are inextricably linked".
"There is a direct link between population's health and the health of the economy, and the longer people are away from the workplace, the greater the impact will be."
And she said the rate of recovery would not be as rapid as the decline.
Ms Dodds reflected on the four months since she had taken up the role of Economy Minister, adding: "In what seemed like a heartbeat, the brutal impact of coronavirus on our health and the economy had changed our priorities."
Since the lockdown, she said that the Executive had issued 19,000 emergency grants to struggling small firms of £10,000, totalling £190m. And the more recently introduced £25,000 grant scheme had attracted 3,000 applications, with over 800 payments made.
Ms Dodds said it was possible that the question whether either grant could be extended to cover more than one premises belonging to a business could be revisited.
Large numbers of firms had also availed of the UK's furlough scheme, she said. "By effectively putting the economy into deep freeze, we have ushered many businesses away from failure."
She said she also hoped to help TV and film-making body NI Screen - which has drawn productions such as Game of Thrones, Line of Duty and The Fall here - and that there could be "reprofiling of the budget".
"Many of us have followed some of the series that have been made and I want to see that capacity preserved."
A separate £40m hardship fund for microbusinesses would also aid "thousands of the smallest companies, as well as charities and social enterprises".
She said that one major bank here had informed her that it had received 1,100 applications for the Government's bounceback loan since the loan scheme launched on Monday.
Meanwhile, the chief executives of Belfast, Causeway, Derry and Newry chambers said a survey of members found that many think they will have to trim their workforce by 25% if the coronavirus job retention scheme stops in June.
Nearly 60% of businesses say that their turnover will more than halve over the next three months. Simon Hamilton of Belfast Chamber, Colm Shannon in Newry, Paul Clancy in Derry and Karen Yates in Causeway, said: "We have known for some time that the health emergency caused by Covid-19 is having a hugely damaging impact on the health of our economy, but these survey results illustrate how stark and indeed long lasting that effect is going to be."