Northern Ireland cannot be held to ransom over Covid-19 financial support and be left waiting for decisions to be taken in England, Stormont’s deputy First Minister has warned.
Michelle O’Neill said it was time for the Treasury to stand up the furlough scheme again so it would be ready and available for workers if more severe restrictions were needed in Northern Ireland in response to the Omicron variant.
Ms O’Neill said Stormont ministers would be updated on the data related to Omicron at an Executive meeting on Thursday.
She declined to be drawn when asked about the likelihood of further restrictions being needed but she told the PA news agency: “We are going to have decisions to take over the coming days.”
The joint head of the devolved administration in Belfast claimed the UK Government had been slow to act in response to the Covid threat in England throughout the pandemic and insisted Northern Ireland should not be forced to delay taking decisions until ministers in London took similar steps.
She expressed concern that the potential reintroduction of UK-wide financial support measures, such as furlough, would be dictated by the timing of the Government’s response to the variant in England.
I am asking the Treasury to stand up the furlough scheme again today, that needs to be done so, if we need to reach for it, it's there and available to usMichelle O'Neill
The Sinn Fein vice president warned that the rapid spread of Omicron could see Northern Ireland enduring the most challenging period of the whole pandemic.
“We shouldn’t be held to ransom until England decide to act,” said the deputy First Minister.
“They have acted too slow many times through the pandemic, I am not prepared to wait for that.
“Of course we are looking at our own resources but I am asking the Treasury to stand up the furlough scheme again today, that needs to be done so, if we need to reach for it, it’s there and available to us.”
On Tuesday, the Treasury announced that it would be providing additional funds to the devolved regions of the UK to help speed up the booster rollout and take other health measures to prepare for the impact of Omicron.
On Wednesday evening, it was confirmed that Northern Ireland is to receive another £75 million.
The Treasury also announced funding for Scotland and Wales as a consequence of additional money for services in England.
In a statement, the Treasury said the allocations will be kept under review in the coming weeks.
“It means that the devolved administrations have the certainty they requested to spend additional funding now rather than waiting for supplementary estimates in the new year,” officials said in a statement.
However a Department of Finance spokesperson said: “This funding announcement includes £50 million the Executive had already anticipated it would receive before the end of the financial year as a result of Westminster funding for business rates.”
DUP First Minister Paul Givan said engagement with the Treasury was ongoing to establish what additional financial support was on offer.
He said the Executive may also have to divert some more of its own resources to tackle Omicron through the next in-year reallocation exercise, which is due in January.
“We’ve got a January monitoring round coming up, what implications could Covid have in terms of the considerations around that, that’s something I’ve already been raising,” he said.
“So whether it’s money for Treasury or whether it’s financial support that we need to look at within our own resources, because hospitality in particular are saying they have had implications over the past number weeks as a result of the new Covid passport scheme and if there were any further restrictions it’s vital that there has to be financial support for those sectors who may be affected by that.
“But I want us to get to a place where we’re not having those sorts of restrictions and closures because I want society to be kept open but to do that safely, but we need to make sure there’s financial support if there were to be other restrictions.”
Mr Givan and Ms O’Neill were attending the signing of the new Belfast City Deal along with Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis on Wednesday.
Mr Lewis insisted the Government had consistently demonstrated it was prepared to provide the resources needed to navigate the pandemic.
“I think if you look back over this difficult couple of years through the pandemic, the UK Government has stood up with unprecedented support both in terms of making decisions, even tough ones, when we have to around people’s safety, but also the financial support both for businesses and individuals in the community through the furlough scheme, business support schemes and obviously the billions that we’ve put into the Executive itself,” he said.
“So I think our track record is very clear, that we will deliver what we need to do and when we need to.”
Stormont Finance Minister Conor Murphy, who also attended the City Deal event at the Waterfront Hall, said Treasury needed to confirm whether the new funding it was making available was in the form of a loan.
“We need to be ready for whatever we need to be ready for,” he said.
“So we will have ongoing discussions with Treasury. We know that they’ve said money would be available if needed, we need to make sure it’s not a loan, that this is genuinely money that’s given to us, which we can use if we are in a situation where we have to take more measures to try and protect the health of the community.”