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Hargey confirms more than 2,500 council staff now on furlough in Northern Ireland

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Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey at Stormont yesterday

Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey at Stormont yesterday

Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey at Stormont yesterday

More than 2,500 staff across Northern Ireland's 11 councils have now been furloughed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Stormont minister Deirdre Hargey has confirmed.

In recent weeks local authorities have used the government scheme due to extreme funding pressure which has closed down many council-run facilities.

Speaking at the Executive's daily briefing yesterday, the Communities Minister said she recognised the financial pressures facing councils and that the Executive is providing £20.3m in support to keep them afloat.

Stressing the importance of protecting jobs, both now and "into the recovery period", Ms Hargey said furloughing staff would be kept "under close observation", with a review expected in August.

The minister revealed that she intervened when one council looked at the possibility of letting go over 70 staff who were on temporary contracts.

She confirmed that she is also in discussions with the Treasury regarding the possibility on conferring more powers to councils to raise funds.

Ms Hargey said local government would provide a "key role" in the recovery of Northern Ireland's economy, adding: "I want to defend public services, I want to ensure that we keep them.

"I want to defend the workers as well, to ensure that they are employed at the other end of this. We will need to look at all options available to us when we get through this."

Meanwhile, a £15.5m fund for struggling charities will be launched "very shortly", with organisations able to apply for support with a limit of £75,000.

Charities have been left in crisis as the pandemic has decimated fundraising, but many have seen increases in the number of people relying on their services.

Many have furloughed staff after seeing their income streams completely collapse.

The minister said: "At a time where budgets are stretched and so many in our community are feeling the pain of the unprecedented situation, it is important that we maintain services for those most in need and those struggling low-income families."

Ms Hargey also revealed that by the end of this week, more than 100,000 parcels will have been distributed in Northern Ireland since the start of April as part of her department's scheme to help vulnerable people.

Turning to sport, the minister said easing restrictions on those played on an all-island basis, such as rugby and GAA, will require the authorities on both sides of the border to move at the same time.

Stormont's recovery plan indicates a return to close physical contact sports in phase five but with no projected dates. The Republic is envisaging rugby returning in phase five of its roadmap on August 10 and competitive GAA a month earlier on July 20.

The authorities on both sides of the border are in agreement that crowd numbers attending games will be restricted indefinitely.

Ms Hargey said her department was engaging with the main sporting codes on what measures could be taken to reduce the infection risk at events while the world waits on a vaccine for Covid-19.

Belfast Telegraph