Northern Ireland’s business community is being “killed off” by the lack of leadership during the pandemic, the Ulster Unionist leader has said.
The Stormont Assembly has called for a hardship fund for those excluded from existing Covid-19 support packages.
Small firms which operate from home are among those at risk of falling through the net of extensive official support provided by Stormont’s Economy Department, a debate heard.
One of the most disappointing things is the number of times people were told that the computer says noSteve Aiken
Steve Aiken said: “That ecosystem is being killed off.
“Many of those people have already gone to the wall.”
In another intervention during a Stormont discussion on the plight of struggling businesses it was said they had suffered a “kick in the teeth” from an Economy Department whose minister, Diane Dodds, had not displayed any understanding.
The Ulster Unionist leader added: “One of the most disappointing things is the number of times people were told that the computer says no.”
Mrs Dodds said more than £1 billion in official support had provided a much needed lifeline for struggling firms.
Mr Aiken said not enough had been done.
“We have had eight months of committees, groups and paper,” he said.
“What we need is some leadership.”
Mrs Dodds said her department had paid out £340 million across its business support schemes.
She called for an extension of the Government’s jobs furlough scheme and admitted the Executive could not safeguard every job.
The senior Democratic Unionist acknowledged the impact of the pandemic in increasing unemployment had been significant.
She said: “This is around seven years of jobs growth wiped out in a matter of weeks.”
She said the local economy had been showing signs of recovery and many sectors had improved but it could take some time before it reached pre-pandemic levels.
Sinn Fein Assembly member John O’Dowd said: “We need a new direction and new thinking.
“Part of that has to be an acceptance that those groups shoring up our economy need support.”
He said the technology industry was the economy minister’s number one priority in bids for support from the Executive.
“It is a sector with a future but it is also one of the sectors that has weathered the storm of Covid-19 the most,” he said.
“Parts of it have flourished during Covid-19.”
Sinn Fein’s economy spokeswoman, Caoimhe Archibald, said small businesses such as photographers and taxi drivers were amongst the most in need of support.
Ulster Unionist Roy Beggs said: “These are entrepreneurs who put their necks out there and think of new ideas and can generate employment in the future.
“It is important that they are not excluded.”