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Coronavirus Q&A: What support is available for families, healthcare staff, workers, self-employed, business and charities in Northern Ireland

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The Hatfield Bar on the Ormeau Road in Belfast. Pic  Colm Lenaghan/ Pacemaker

The Hatfield Bar on the Ormeau Road in Belfast. Pic Colm Lenaghan/ Pacemaker

The Hatfield Bar on the Ormeau Road in Belfast. Pic Colm Lenaghan/ Pacemaker

The Northern Ireland and UK governments have taken a series of unprecedented measures in order to support the economy, businesses, workers and families.

The tourism, travel, hospitality, retail and entertainment sectors, along with the self-employed, are gravely impacted by the economic crisis, and thousands of people in Northern Ireland have already lost their jobs.

Business owners

If you are a Northern Ireland business owner, here's what support is available to you.

Q Will I still have to pay rates, even if I have had to close?

A Stormont Finance Minister Conor Murphy has announced an emergency £100m rates package for all Northern Ireland businesses. This will mean businesses will not have to pay any rates for the next three months.

In order to help businesses with short-term cash flow problems, rates bills from April to June will also be deferred.

There have been calls, however, for the rates holiday to be extended to a year, as is the case for the hospitality sector in England.

Q What about my VAT bill?

A Chancellor Rishi Sunak has deferred the next quarter of VAT payments, meaning no business across the UK will pay VAT from now to mid-June. The Chancellor said businesses will have until the end of the financial year to repay their VAT bills.

Q My business has shut as a result of the outbreak, how can I keep my staff on the payroll?

Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced that "for the first time in our history" the UK Government will step in and help pay people's wages through a coronavirus job retention scheme.

"Employers will be able to contact HMRC for a grant to cover most of the wages of people who are not working but are furloughed and kept on payroll rather than being laid off," he said.

The Government grants will cover 80% of the salary of retained workers up to a total of £2,500 a month – “which is just above the median income".

Businesses retaining staff through the coronavirus employment retention scheme will not have to reimburse the grants they receive.

The scheme, open to any employer in the UK, will cover the cost of wages backdated to March 1st and will be open before the end of April for at least three months.

“There's no limit on the funding available for the scheme, we will pay to support as many jobs as needed,” the Chancellor said.

Q What other support is available for businesses?

A Businesses are also able to avail of £330bn in government-back loans. These loans are designed to help firms pay rent, stock and suppliers. The Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme will remain interest-free for 12 months.

Q The Chancellor also announced funding grants of up to £25,000 for small businesses, does this apply to Northern Ireland?

A The Stormont Executive has unveiled its own grants schemes to assist businesses with cash flow pressures brought about by the Covid-19 outbreak. The official rescue package includes a grant scheme worth £10,000 each for around 27,000 small businesses and a payment of £25,000 to around 4,000 firms involved in retail, tourism and hospitality.

The new small business grant scheme of £10,000 will be provided to all small businesses eligible for the small business rate relief scheme with a Net Asset Value of up to £15,000.

The new immediate grant of £25,000 will go to for companies in the retail, tourism and hospitality sectors with Net Asset Value between £15,000 and £51,000.

Q How can I get access to the grant?

A Economy Minister Diane Dodds announced the first set of payments for small businesses impacted by the Coronavirus crisis will be made under the Small Business Grant Scheme on 31 March, if not before then.

An online portal: https://www.covid-19smallbusinessgrants.economy-ni.gov.uk/ has gone live for businesses to register their bank and rates details to secure payment.

Q Are any other financial measures expected to be announced in the near future?

A Business leaders have called on employer's national insurance contributions to be waived. The Government has also been urged to provide further support to sole traders and the self-employed, who can now access, in full, Universal Credit at a rate equivalent to Statutory Sick Pay for employees.

Self employed

Q What support is available for those that are self employed?

A The Chancellor announced the next self-assessment payments will be deferred until January 2021 in order to support the self-employed through the tax system.

He further announced self-employed people with trading profits of under £50,000 will also be able to benefit from a HM Treasury Self-Employed Income Support Scheme, a taxable grant worth 80% of their average monthly profits over the last three years, up to £2,500 per month.

Q How will this be worked out?

The scheme will be available to around 136,000 in Northern Ireland. At least half their income needs to have come from self-employment as registered on the 2018-19 tax return filed in January. People who have not filed that return are advised to do so immediately and have four weeks to do so - from March 26. This will not cover those recently self-employed with the chancellor saying they will have to rely on the benefits system.

Q Can I continue to work?

Yes unlike the PAYE workers' scheme you can continue to work.

Q When will the payments be made?

A A single lump sum payment backdated to March will be made in June. Until then self-employed workers have been advised to apply for universal credit. The grants will be taxed and should be declared on tax returns by January 2022.

Workers

If you have lost your job and now rely on benefits or are struggling financially due to the coronavirus, here's what has already been announced to help you.

Q. I have lost my job; what’s being done to help me?

A The Chancellor has announced that the Universal Credit standard allowance and the Working Tax Credit basic element will each be increased by £1,000 a year for 12 months. Universal Credit is a payment to help with your living costs.

Q How can I sign on for benefits during the pandemic?

A All benefits offices are closed and contact will be made over the phone to protect the public and frontline staff.

"All front line services will be suspended initially for a period of three months to assess where we are with this virus and any contact will be done via the telephone or other forms of communications," Communities Minister, Deirdre Hargey said, speaking on BBC Radio Ulster.

Appointments have been postponed for a period of three months, which may be extended.

Q Do I still have to sign on in person?

A No. Ms Hargey said that those who normally have to sign on in person for benefits will no longer have to turn up to the benefit offices.

"No one will be penalised for any attending the office," she said, adding that those who usually have to submit medical advice or certificates in person are not currently required to do so.

Q Will I be contacted about my face-to-face interview?

A "We're contacting those people over the next few days to let them know their appointments have been suspended initially for a period of three months. We will be constantly reviewing that," said Ms Hargey.

Q What about my rent?

The Chancellor has announced nearly £1bn of support for renters across the UK, through housing benefit and Universal Credit. He said the Local Housing Allowance will cover at least 30% of market rents in your area.

Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey has also outlined locally implemented measures.

In relation to social housing tenants, the Department for Communities has an agreement in place with all social housing landlords (Housing Executive and Housing Associations) that any social housing tenant facing difficulties paying rent during Covid-19 will not be evicted.

For private renters, the increase in Local Housing Allowance rates from 1 April will provide additional financial support for private tenants in receipt of Housing Benefit or the housing costs element of Universal Credit.

“In addition, anyone who has lost their job and who signs on to Universal Credit can apply for a Discretionary Housing Payment to have their full rent paid for 13 weeks,” Mrs Hargey said.

Meanwhile the Housing Executive, which leads on the response to homelessness, has a central Covid-19 team in place and will continue to fulfil its statutory homeless obligations during this period.

Q I am on the Steps 2 Success employment programme - do I have to attend?

A Ms Hargey said: "All programmes going forward will be suspended for a period and people will not be penalised for not attending the office."

Q I work in a small business - what will my job prospects look like in the near future?

A Speaking in Stormont on Monday, Economy Minister Diane Dodds revealed plans to re-divert laid-off staff in the coming months.

"I think it is something that my department will quickly look at, if we are in the position where firms have to close," she said.

"Many people will have skills in food preparation that we may need in our hospitals and so on as this thing reaches a peak, so we will be looking at this and how, if one business closes, there are opportunities in other areas."

Healthcare workers

Q I am working in a hospital, what support is there for me?

A Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon approved free travel for NHS workers on public transport. Social care workers are required to present their work pass to Translink staff on all services.

Healthcare staff working in private sector settings like care homes can avail of free travel by showing photographic ID and obtaining a letter available from the Department of Health, signed by their employer.

The Minister announced there would be a further reduction in the level of public transport provision from Monday 30 March when Translink Bus and Rail Services will operate a further reduced frequency timetable.

Supermarkets have dedicated shopping times for healthcare workers to be able to collect groceries.

A number of accommodation providers - such as hotels, Airbnb owners have offered places to stay for workers who fear returning home to their families after a shift working with those who may have the virus.

Parents

Q What support is available for families?

A Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey and Education Minister Peter Weir moved to ensure that the families of children on free school meals do not experience any hardship as a result of the recent closure of schools.

Minister Hargey confirmed direct payments of £2.70 per child per day will be made every two weeks to the families of 97,000 children for each day their school is closed.

Minister Weir said the Education Authority would process grants for the vast majority of the 50,000 families receiving free school meals but where their bank details are not known, families would be contacted by text message early next week, urging them to immediately complete an online form on the Education Authority website.

Also some schools are open for key workers to use for childcare provision. Education Minister Peter Weir has said some 580 schools have opened for 1,172 pupils with 5,686 available.

Public transport

Q Are the buses and trains still running?

A No public transport service will be allowed to admit more than 50% of passengers on board. Passengers will also not be permitted to sit beside other people and must observe the two metre social distancing rule. Translink will have additional capacity on standby for its heavily used routes to facilitate social distancing.

Service changes will also be implemented from Monday March 23.

Bus Services (Ulsterbus, Metro and Glider) will operate a reduced service timetable and NI Railways will operate a Saturday timetable. Translink is also reducing the service timetable for cross-border coach and Enterprise rail services. This is in response to a significant reduction in passenger numbers.

Full details of the new timetables are available on Translink’s website and journey planner.

Farmers

Q What support is available for farmers?

A A newly extended telephone service was set up by the Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Minister Edwin Poots to avoid delays in the movement of cattle and help keep the food supply chain moving smoothly.

With the availability of food a key priority for the Executive, farmers who would normally register the movement of an animal in paper format with DAERA Direct offices, will be able to register this activity today by telephone by phoning the Cattle Registration Telephone line on 0300 200 7855 which is operational Monday to Friday from 9.00am-5.00pm.

Farmers who are already registered to use DAERA’s APHIS online system should continue to use this to notify all cattle births, deaths and movements.

Charities

Q I’m involved with a charity ready to help during the crisis; is there new funding available?

A new £400,000 Coronavirus Community Fund has been announced in Northern Ireland.

The new fund is being used to support older people, who are at higher risk, and other issues emerging from coronavirus.

Grants of £1,000 are available however, applications for up to £2,500 of emergency funding to community organisations working with older people (aged 50 and over) to help them to deliver support during the outbreak, will be considered.

Belfast Telegraph