Discontinuing the Government’s job retention scheme at the end of June would be too soon, Stormont’s finance minister has said.
Conor Murphy said that while some sectors were already returning to business, others would not be able to restart for a considerable time.
Asked if Stormont could step in and top up some payments for furloughed workers, Mr Murphy said the devolved administration would face significant obstacles to using its own resources to finance any shortfall, if the Government moves to reduce payments.
The Job Retention Scheme, which has seen the UK Government pay up to 80% of the wages of 6.3 million workers, at a cost of about £8 billion, is currently in place until the end of June.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak has promised there will be no “cliff edge” closure of the scheme, but there have been reports the Government may move to start winding down the scheme in July.
Mr Murphy said the scheme had been a “hugely important intervention” by the Government.
“I am worried the ending of this in June is too soon,” he told the daily Covid-19 briefing at Stormont.
“I think certain sectors are already starting to return to work, and others may follow in the time ahead.
“But clearly some sectors are going to continue to suffer from an inability to work, even if restrictions are lifted, and the inability to operate at full pace as they were doing up to the outbreak of this pandemic.
I am worried the ending of this in June is too soonConor Murphy
“So I do think some analysis needs to be done in terms of the sectors that can return to work, that have returned to work and those who are not able to do so.
“And we will obviously be, as we have been on a weekly basis, talking to Treasury in relation to these matters and talking to business organisations and other employees and employers here as well.”
Asked if Stormont could potentially provide mitigation payments, similar to top-ups to benefits claimants affected by welfare reforms, Mr Murphy cited both technical and financial obstacles.
“The system’s based on the HMRC database, which we don’t have,” he said.
“So the ability for the executive to pick this up and to try and operate similar payments, firstly I have no doubt it would be hugely costly in terms of what limited resources are available to us.
“But also it’s paid directly through the HMRC database, directly to employers and employees. So that would present another very significant obstacle to that.”
Mr Murphy said he would be seeking more details from the Treasury regarding its intentions for the scheme and would make a case for those sectors that will have a “real difficulty” getting back to work “any time soon”.