Ulster Business

| 4.9°C Belfast

Coronavirus: what’s on the table to help Northern Ireland businesses?

John Mulgrew looks at what’s being offered for businesses in a bid to help our companies across the sectors survive the coming weeks – an unprecedented period not seen here in peace time

Close

Gordon Street at lunchtime in city centre Belfast. Pic Kevin Scott

Gordon Street at lunchtime in city centre Belfast. Pic Kevin Scott

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Gordon Street at lunchtime in city centre Belfast. Pic Kevin Scott

As I type this, and despite being engaged on a day-to-day basis with the ebb and flow of business here, it’s still hard to come to terms with the situation we now find ourselves in.

And while this may serve as something of a loose guide as to what’s being done to support companies here amid the global outbreak of coronavirus, it’s changing and developing on a daily basis. But we’ll be keeping you up-to-date throughout the next few weeks online, on social media and in future issues.

So far, the headline figure from a Northern Ireland perspective is a £370m support package, aimed at offering grants to businesses here – focusing on retail, hospitality and tourism, in an attempt to keep cashflow going.

That will mean small businesses with a net asset value up to £15,000, receiving a grant up to £10,000, while a larger £25,000 grant will be offered to medium-sized companies. Those qualifying for the £25,000 grant must have a rateable value of between £15,000 and £51,000.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a UK-wide stimulus package of as much as £350bn. It includes £330bn in loans, £20bn in other aid, such as a business rates holiday – longer than that here.

An initial announcement from Finance Minister Conor Murphy outlined a £100m freeze on commercial rates for just three months, and deferring the issuing of rates bill from April until June.

And other areas, at the time of writing, appear yet to be address. The newly reformed Business Alliance raised the issue of areas such as extending HMRC time-to-pay tax suspensions, extending the small business rates holiday. There are also hopes of the Government guaranteeing the wages of workers over the coming weeks.

But there are stark gaps appearing, at the time of print. For instance, the rates holiday only applies to commercial rates, therefore anyone self-employed and working from a domestic property isn’t included.

And the issue of self-employment goes further still. At the time of print, many of those working for themselves will have no income protection for the foreseeable future.

The small business rates relief is currently focusing on the sectors which are being hit hardest, first, namely hospitality. But they do not include other sectors, such as manufacturing and construction – many of which are likely to feel the effects more strongly in the coming weeks.

Close

Finance Minister Conor Murphy

Finance Minister Conor Murphy

Presseye/Stephen Hamilton

Finance Minister Conor Murphy

Meanwhile, sectors are also calling for measures to go further, as discussed elsewhere in this magazine. Colin Neill of Hospitality Ulster has called for a raft of measures to ensure, not only the continued future of our hospitality sector, but protect those who now find themselves out of work, with many more likely to follow. That includes a staff support package of £200 a week, domestic bills frozen for staff and a 100% rates holiday for a year.

Stephen Kelly, chief executive of Manufacturing NI, has also said further rescue is needed, supporting payroll to guarantee there is an income floor, removing the stress and the panic in the workforce and the community.

As I write this, I’d be more than happy for this piece to seem dated if it means there is a fresh deluge of government support for our businesses, and that we’re headed towards something in the way of tackling a crisis no one could have expected.

Hospitality sector ‘running out of time’

Thousands of jobs and an entire industry are at risk as hospitality businesses across Northern Ireland pull down the shutters amid the spread of coronavirus, it’s been warned.

Many bars, restaurants and cafes here took their own decision to temporarily close down, in a bid to protect staff and customers – limiting large groups of people from gathering.

Already, most of Belfast’s leading restaurants, such as OX, Saphyre, Muddlers Club and Mourne Seafood have closed, while Bill Wolsey’s Beannchor group announced the temporary layoff of 800 staff, including the temporary closure of many of its businesses.

Close

The Sunflower Pub in Belfast

The Sunflower Pub in Belfast

The Sunflower Pub in Belfast

Pub staples on one of the busiest days in the year, St Patrick’s Day, shut their doors in a bid to help curtail crowds, while bars including The Sunflower and The American have now temporarily closed.

And while a £370m grant package has been announced by First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill – primarily to help retail and hospitality businesses – the industry wants further steps as it says “we are running out of time”.

“We welcome the announcement relating to the several grant schemes that they have brought forward based on rateable value,” Colin Neill, chief executive of Hospitality Ulster, said. “However, we need much, much more. Support needs to be immediately directed to, and felt by, our staff. We hope in the coming days that further targeted alleviation measures are brought forward with urgency. We need more support from Westminster also. This grant money will be burnt up very quickly.

“We need to put our industry into a deep freeze. We need all bills frozen. The clock needs to be stopped.

“Our people are being made redundant left, right and centre – into the thousands – and we cannot wait for grant schemes to trickle down. We are behind the curve and we simply can’t wait. We are running out of time.”

He’s called on a range of additional measures, including a staff support package of £200 a week “so that they can put food on the table”.

Close

The Dirty Onion on St Patrick's Day which is now shut

The Dirty Onion on St Patrick's Day which is now shut

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

The Dirty Onion on St Patrick's Day which is now shut

Speaking about the temporary closure of many of his businesses, Bill Wolsey, said: “Never in 43 years of business have I seen a crisis like this one, nor faced a decision like this.

“This has been an emotional and extremely tough decision but if we do not act now, we will not have a business to return to.

“We have made this decision because we feel we have to act responsibly in the best longer term interests of the group and its staff.”

Close

A reporter wearing protective gloves films Glyn Roberts of Retail NI outside Stormont Castle

A reporter wearing protective gloves films Glyn Roberts of Retail NI outside Stormont Castle

A reporter wearing protective gloves films Glyn Roberts of Retail NI outside Stormont Castle

Belfast Telegraph