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Coronavirus: ‘Whatever it takes’ vows Chancellor with £640m boost for Northern Ireland businesses

Government-backed loans worth £330bn are among an “unprecedented package” of measures to help businesses through the coronavirus crisis unveiled by the Chancellor.

Rishi Sunak vowed to do “whatever it takes” to help the economy, as he warned that “never in peacetime have we faced an economic fight like this one”.

Northern Ireland is to get an £640m from Tuesday’s package. Alongside £260m already announced by the Treasury the day before, this amounts to an injection of more than £900m, the Secretary of State said.

“This is a very strong package of measures to support our UK economy at a very difficult time. We will do whatever it takes to support jobs, incomes and businesses across Northern Ireland and help to protect your loved ones,” NI Secretary Brandon Lewis said.

Stormont’s Finance Minister quickly announced a rates holiday to help businesses here. Conor Murphy said all businesses will pay zero rates for the next three months thanks to an emergency package costing £100m.

He also announced the deferral of rates bills from April until June to help businesses with short-term cash flow.

But it came too late for two companies in Northern Ireland.

Cruise ship refurbisher MJM Marine in Newry has told staff that redundancies “in large numbers” are unavoidable after all orders except one were postponed indefinitely by customers.

The Beannchor Group announced the temporary layoff of up to 800 staff and the temporary closure of most of its portfolio of bars and hotels here.

The Dirty Onion and Yard Bird, The National, sixty6, Bullitt Belfast, The Ulster Sports Club and the Park Avenue Hotel will close with immediate effect. The Merchant Hotel will remain open, but with a significantly scaled-back offering.

It came as the number of people thought to have Covid-19 in the UK rose to 55,000 and the death toll climbed to 71. The total number of cases in Northern Ireland on Tuesday was 62, including 10 new ones.

The measures outlined by the Chancellor include:

  • A three-month mortgage holiday for homeowners if they are suffering difficulties due to the outbreak so they will not have to pay anything “while they get back on their feet”.
  • Cash grants of up to £25,000 to be available to smaller businesses in the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors with a rateable value of less than £51,000.
  • The business rates holiday for smaller businesses announced in last week’s Budget will be extended to all businesses in those sectors irrespective of their rateable value.
  • The new business interruption loan scheme announced at the Budget is being extended to small and medium-sized businesses, providing loans of up to £5m with no interest due for the first six months, up from £1.2m.

The package of tax cuts and grants in this financial year is worth more than £20bn.

Mr Sunak, speaking alongside the Prime Minister in Downing Street, said the Government would “stand behind businesses small and large” as he unveiled an initial £330bn of guarantees equivalent to 15% of GDP.

“That means any business who needs access to cash to pay their rent, their salaries, suppliers or purchase stock will be able to access a Government-backed loan or credit on attractive terms,” he said.

“And if demand is greater than the initial £330bn I’m making available today, I will go further and provide as much capacity as required. I said whatever it takes, and I meant it.”

The package comes after the public was told to avoid all non-essential contact and travel, while the elderly and those with underlying conditions were told they would have to stay home much more.

Conor Murphy said the emergency measures being taken at Stormont on the back of the Chancellor’s cash boost “will reduce costs and help with cash flow during this extremely challenging time. These are initial measures and I will be making further announcements shortly”.

“Rate relief alone will not sustain businesses and the jobs they provide. Everyone has to work together to get us through this,” he said.

As he announced the closure of several of Northern Ireland’s best-known pubs and hotels, Beannchor managing director Bill Wolsey said he has never witnessed a crisis like this in 43 years of business.

“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,” he said. “We waited for as long as we could to see what support might be available from the Government but the so-called ‘support package’ announced by the Prime Minister and Chancellor this evening is absolutely no support at all.

“This is a terrible blow for our people who have made this group the success story it has become and we will be doing all that we can to support them in the coming weeks.”

Colin Neill, chief executive of Hospitality Ulster, said the measures announced by Mr Murphy will help businesses but added: “We are still a huge way away from what’s needed. It’s not enough, and it may be too late for many. Many of our members are rapidly losing their businesses and staff and we need more measures to be implemented immediately.”

Retail NI chief executive Glyn Roberts (below left) said the package from the Finance Minister “needs to go a lot further than just exempting business rates for three months”.

“The Chancellor has given small business a rates holiday of a year in England and this needs to happen in Northern Ireland. Minister Murphy also needs to outline how much the Regional Rate will be.”

Belfast Chamber of Commerce chief executive Simon Hamilton said the £100m of support announced by Mr Murphy “is a welcome first step in the right direction”. He said: “It is clear that if business is to pull through this really challenging period and we are to protect jobs, then businesses will need much more support from the Executive.”

Belfast Telegraph