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Coronavirus business forum will not be ‘talking shop’ – minister

The forum will assess whether businesses should remain open during the coronavirus emergency.

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Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots called for more support for businesses (Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA)

Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots called for more support for businesses (Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA)

Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots called for more support for businesses (Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA)

A Stormont minister has rejected claims a new forum to assess whether businesses should remain open during the coronavirus emergency will be a “talking shop”.

The forum is being convened in an effort to end controversy over certain manufacturing companies that are still in production in Northern Ireland.

Chaired by the Labour Relations Agency, it will bring together leading business organisations, trade unions, the Public Health Agency, the police and health and safety inspectors.

It will be established by Economy Minister Diane Dodds.

While Stormont has published lists of businesses in the retail and service sector considered essential during the crisis, ministers in the coalition executive remain at odds over whether some manufacturers should still be running.

Where it is essential frontline services, we have to ensure that distancing is in place to protect those workers.Deirdre Hargey

Sinn Fein has been vocal in calling for all workplaces not engaged in frontline work to shut.

The DUP has insisted the issue is not that straightforward and highlighted that some manufacturing companies would not qualify for the 80% wage support package the Government is offering.

The party has emphasised the role appropriate social distancing measures can play in enabling some companies to continue to operate.

Sinn Fein Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey said the forum would have an important role in assessing what work was essential and what was not.

“I don’t think it’s a case of a talking shop,” she told the BBC Sunday Politics show.

“I mean I think it is important that we engage all of those (representatives). You’re going to find these situations, whether it’s in the south of Ireland, whether it’s in Britain or here in the north, and it’s a fluid and fast-paced situation.

“But I do think the guidance is clear. If you’re a company that doesn’t need to be in work, if you don’t see yourself as a frontline essential service, then you shouldn’t be there, your workers shouldn’t be turning up to work.

“Where it is essential frontline services, we have to ensure that distancing is in place to protect those workers, and to ensure that we do have workers to return at the other end of this pandemic to rebuild the economy again.”

DUP Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots called on the Government to provide support to manufacturing businesses that currently do not qualify for the package that sees the state covering 80% of the salaries of temporarily furloughed staff.

“People misinterpret the regulations and think that every business is entitled to claim the 80%, they are not – it is those businesses that are severely impacted by Covid-19 can claim the 80%,” he said.

“So, if you’re calling for a business to close, you may be calling on that business to lay off workers but have no resource to pay those workers.

“So you’re asking the people who are working in those factories to go home and receive no pay. That’s the seriousness of this.

“We need to, if we’re going to get to a situation where manufacturing is closed down, that needs to be a decision that’s taken at Westminster that they will actually support those businesses.

“At this moment in time, if we close a number of those businesses, they wouldn’t have the resource, the 80% that others are getting, to actually pay their workers. Consequently, the workers wouldn’t be getting paid.”

PA