Coronavirus: morning update

Coronavirus: morning update

Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon.

By Damian Mullan


By Damian Mullan


NORTHERN Ireland Executive ministers and their officials have over the past 24 hours been involved in a number of initiatives and critical decisions relating to the Coronavirus emergency.

The Executive is to fund a summer food scheme for children who have received free school meals during the Covid-19 pandemic, Finance Minister Conor Murphy confirmed.

As he unveiled plans to spend £250 million during the 2020-21 June monitoring process, the Minister announced funding would go towards elective care and mental health services, schemes to support the most vulnerable in society and childcare services.

Minister Murphy declared: “The allocations made today will provide vital funding for our health service, vulnerable people and businesses. A further £90 million has been allocated to health. This includes funding for Elective Care and for the Mental Health Action Plan which is integral to the wider Covid-19 recovery.

"To support children during this pandemic, I have allocated £12 million for a summer food scheme, £12 million for summer activities and £10.5 million for childcare. Over £15 million has been provided for the most vulnerable in society. This will help meet increased benefit delivery costs, assist vulnerable people to live independently and will provide support for the homeless.

"I am also allocating £20 million for business start-ups and investment in tourist attractions. In addition I have allocated £4 million to assist the arts sector and £2 million for the sports sector.” 

Other allocations include:

* £35.5m for infrastructure to include £20m for Translink, £10m for other transport lost income and £5.5m for NI Water;
* £25m for Ulster University Greater Belfast Development;
* £13.5m for the NI Courts Service, PSNI and NI Prison Service; 
* £3.6m for Education Authority pressures and £0.3m for School Uniform Grants;
* £2.5m for costs associated with establishing the administrative arrangements for the implementation of the Victims Pensions Scheme;
* £2.5m for Higher Education;
* £2.2m for Invest NI;
* £0.5m for Covid-19 public information communications.

In a Written Statement to the Assembly, Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Minister Edwin Poots announced £25million in Covid-19 financial support will be made available to businesses in the beef, dairy, sheep, potato and ornamental horticulture sectors to offset losses incurred as a result of market turbulence caused by the health crisis.

Minister Poots revealed: “Covid-19 was a shock to the agri-food industry and caused a significant downturn in the trading ability of the sector. I have decided to target £21.4m of the £25m support package towards those businesses in the beef, dairy, sheep, potato and ornamental horticulture sectors that have been hardest hit financially and those in most immediate need as a direct result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

"Since other support measures are available to agricultural and horticultural businesses, rates of compensation for losses incurred have been set at 100% or 80% - depending on the nature of the business and other support already available.”

The £21.4m (indicative figures) will be allocated as follows:

* Support for the Beef Sector - £7m (100% losses covered)
* Support for the Dairy Sector - £11m (80% losses covered)
* Support for the Sheep Sector - £232k (100% losses covered)
* Support for the Potato Sector - £1.2 – 1.6m  (80% losses covered)
* Support for the Ornamental Horticulture Sector – £1.2m - £1.6m  (80% losses covered)

The Minister said while the financial interventions he had announced would go a long way towards helping businesses survive, the possibility of further market disturbance as a result of this pandemic could not be ruled out, necessitating further financial support.

He said: “For that reason, I want to retain a budget of just over £7m based on the residual funding of £3.6m (from the £25m) and £3.6m that has been reprioritised internally within my Department. This would allow me to address additional issues and challenges Covid-19 may present in the weeks and months ahead.

"As far as I am aware, this is the most comprehensive support scheme for our primary producers available anywhere within the EU. It is vitally important that we recognise the hard work of our farmers and those working within the wider agri-food sector who have, through these extraordinary times, ensured we have food on our tables.”

Lessons learned from the handling of homelessness during the Covid-19 pandemic will inform future policy, Communities Minister Carál Ní Chuilín pledged today.

During a pre-recorded address to the Chartered Institute for Housing’s international housing summit, the Minister outlined plans to increase housing supply and options across all tenures including building more social housing, making use of the existing stock, improving the private rented sector and also housing for the most vulnerable.

On the issue of tackling homelessness, Minister Ní Chuilín observed: “Throughout the Covid-19 crisis we have taken a number of key steps to protect one of our most vulnerable groups – those who are homeless. Temporary accommodation has been provided for over 3,000 households, including those individuals and families with no recourse to public funds.

"There have been no recorded instances of rough sleeping during the recent emergency period in the North and our Housing Executive has advised that those previously rough sleeping are now engaging with their services. Our future homeless policy will build on lessons learned from how we dealt with Covid-19 crisis as we look to improve our response to homelessness.”

The Minister signalled that the £72.8 million Supporting People programme, which provides a lifeline for the homeless, older people, those with a disability and other vulnerable people, will remain a priority for her and her officials.

Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon announced today that Disability Action Transport Services will resume passenger services for essential travel from tomorrow (1st July).

Paying tribute to Disability Action and the Rural Community Transport Partnerships for providing transitioned services, Minister Mallon said they had given invaluable support to some of the most vulnerable citizens during the pandemic.

Minister Mallon confirmed: “I will continue to support them in doing that as we proceed through this next stage of the Executive’s recovery plan. I am also mindful that as restrictions on travel are eased, there will be a greater demand for travel. However, I would ask all those travelling to please continue to be responsible and adhere to the guidance given on essential travel and social distancing. “We all have a personal responsibility to protect the health and well-being of ourselves and others.  The Covid-19 virus is still with us so it is vital we do not become complacent.”

The definition of a key worker will no longer apply for access to childcare, Health Minister Robin Swann and Education Minister Peter Weir announced today. 

The decision was reached following the recent publication of the Childcare Sector Recovery Plan.

Minister Swann explained: “The key worker definition for childcare purposes will no longer apply. This will support the wider Executive decision-making around allowing people to return to work. Childcare policy continues to be developed in line with medical and scientific advice and with input from elected representatives, childcare sector representatives and parents.”

Minister Weir added: “This announcement will support more parents to access childcare.  As schools begin to reopen it will be important to ensure that there is alignment between school restart plans and childcare provision so that the impact on working parents is kept to a minimum.”

The ministers stressed that the safety of children and staff in all settings was critical and they said a number of infection control measures had been put in place.

These included:

* Health and Social Care Trust Early Years Teams being part of decisions to reopen, assisted by the Public Health Agency;
* The introduction of Play Pods in registered group childcare settings – organising children and staff in small groups (12 children maximum), who don’t mix with other groups in the setting;
* A gradual increase in the numbers of families childminders can provide childcare for, to a maximum of four families from today. It is intended that this will rise to five families in August.

Updated guidance has also been issued directly to all registered childcare providers in Northern Ireland.

Economy Minister Diane Dodds joined the 11 members of the reconstituted Economic Advisory Group at their first meeting today as they focussed on the priorities for a recovery.

Macroeconomic and sectoral summary research presented to the group revealed that the economy ran 25% to 30% below normal in Northern Ireland during the Covid-19 lockdown.

Amid warnings that unemployment could return to levels not seen since the 1980s with young, disadvantaged and vulnerable people likely to be the hardest hit, Minister Dodds said: “The research report we are publishing today provides further evidence of the need to focus strongly on the economy. I intend to work closely and urgently with my Executive colleagues on this issue.”

The Economic Advisory Group’s chair, Ellvena Graham, said: “This was a very positive first meeting. It is early days for the group and we know there are serious challenges ahead but I have no doubt that this group will use their extensive business expertise to make a major contribution to helping rebuild our economy. Our focus is now on developing our plans for the way ahead and I look forward to sharing further updates in due course.”

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