Stormont ministers have agreed a £40 million grant scheme to support hospitality businesses affected by the latest Covid-19 restrictions in Northern Ireland.
Grants of between £10,000 and £20,000 will be available to more than 3,200 eligible businesses.
Eligible businesses include nightclubs, restaurants, cafes, coffee shops, bistros, snack bars, pubs/bars, social clubs or private members’ clubs.
Sporting clubhouses are not eligible.
The Department of Finance’s Land and Property Services will take the lead in developing the latest grant scheme.
Ministers had faced criticism on Wednesday for agreeing and announcing a series of restrictions without an accompanying support package.
The administration currently has around £200 million of funding available to respond to the developing Omicron variant threat, including £100 million recently committed by the Treasury.
Nightclubs will close on Boxing Day under the new post-Christmas restrictions and indoor standing events will also be prohibited.
For hospitality businesses remaining open, a series of added curbs will apply.
Dancing has been banned while a table service only policy has been reintroduced, along with the “rule of six” limit on table sizes.
Weddings are exempted from the hospitality measures.
The scheme was agreed by First Minister Paul Givan and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill by way of urgent procedure and without the requirement for a meeting of the powersharing administration.
The grants will be allocated related to the net annual value (Nav) of businesses’ estimated rental value, the same system used to assess rates bills in Northern Ireland.
Businesses with a Nav up to £15,000 will be eligible for £10,000 grants.
Businesses with a Nav between £15,001 to £51,000 will be eligible for £15,000 while those with a Nav over £51,000 can claim £20,000.
Finance Minister Conor Murphy said the Executive would continue to press the UK Government to provide more financial support, such as the reintroduction of the furlough scheme.
“This is a scheme which is much more generous than the scheme in England,” he said.
“It’s £40 million for over 3,000 hospitality businesses.
“It will bring some measure of confidence in these difficult times and we know there will be very challenging times for them over the Christmas period and we hope to get the scheme out on the ground as quickly as possible in the new year.”
Mr Givan said: “This is a demonstration of our commitment to supporting the hospitality industry and those workers who are being impacted by the current challenges around Covid.
“The Executive will continue to look at what other measures can be put in place to support other parts of the economy that have been impacted during this time.”
The Executive has moved rapidly to deliver a £40m package for hospitality. I have approved via urgent procedure a scheme that will benefit over 3200 businesses with grant payments of £10k for NAV up to 15k, 15k for NAV between £15k-£51k and £20k for NAV of over £51k.
— Paul Givan (@paulgivan) December 23, 2021
Ms O’Neill said: “As an Executive, we have been listening to industry and recognise the losses the sector is experiencing.
“We hope this package, which will pay much greater amounts than the English scheme, will help them through these difficult circumstances.
“As an Executive, we will do all we can to support the hospitality industry as we fight this pandemic together. It is also essential that the Westminster Government reintroduces the furlough scheme for workers as a matter of urgency.”
On Wednesday, ministers also agreed that sporting events can continue with no limits on capacity, while the work from home message will be bolstered and legislation introduced to require social distancing in offices and similar typed workplaces.
Employers will be encouraged to introduce lateral flow testing procedures for people who are still coming into work.
People attending large events will be urged to wear face masks, take lateral flow tests and not car share to or from the venues.
Ministers are due to meet again on December 30 to review the health measures and assess whether more action is need to suppress the spread of Omicron.
Details of the package was unveiled as Northern Ireland’s Health Minister warned against Covid-19 complacency following research indicating that the Omicron variant may be less severe than Delta.
Robin Swann said it was vital the public did not let their “guard down”.
Mr Swann said Omicron, which is now the dominant variant in Northern Ireland, still posed a significant threat to health and social care services.
Another 3,227 confirmed cases of the virus were reported in the region on Thursday, only four down on Wednesday’s pandemic record of 3,231.
One further Covid-19 related fatality was also reported by the Department of Health.
On Thursday morning, there were 254 Covid-positive patients in hospital, of whom 34 were in intensive care.
“There remains a great deal of uncertainty about Omicron,” said Mr Swann.
“Some early research from Great Britain suggests it may be less severe than the Delta variant in terms of the proportion of infected people who require treatment in hospital.
“More information is still required and the findings are not definitive.
“I must emphasise that this early research definitely does not mean that Omicron should be taken any less seriously.
“It is much more infectious than Delta and will therefore lead to much greater levels of infection.
“Even with a lower proportion being hospitalised, if the number of cases rises to very high levels, the number of Covid in-patients will increase as well. Pressure on our hospitals could therefore be significantly increased.”
Mr Swann said the fact Omicron has to date largely spread among young people meant more data was still required on its full impact, including potential hospital admission rates among older people.
“Furthermore, widespread transmission in the community will inevitably lead to more staff absences in essential services,” he said.
“That has the potential to seriously impact health and social care provision.
“It is therefore absolutely vital that we don’t let our guard down or be swayed by uninformed talk on social media.
“We must keep doing all we can to protect each other and limit the spread of Omicron.
“Get boosted as soon as you can.
“If you are not yet vaccinated, please don’t delay any further.
“If we all keep making safer choices in our daily lives, we can help push infection rates down.”
On Thursday, Mr Swann also announced that new treatments for Covid patients that are currently provided in hospitals in Northern Ireland would be made available to high-risk people in the community.
Mr Swann said widening the use of the novel drug therapies would reduce the number of people who need to be admitted to hospital.
The treatments are usually administered in the early stages of a Covid infection.
– neutralising monoclonal antibodies (nMABs). This is usually administered as a single intravenous infusion delivered as an outpatient.
– oral antiviral medicine, currently molnupiravir (Lagevrio), which is usually taken in capsule form at home.
Mr Swann said: “These type of treatments are already used by the health service to treat patients who are hospitalised with severe Covid-19, and have been shown to improve survival and recovery time.
“The rollout of these treatments to patients at high risk in the community is a significant milestone in our battle against Covid-19 and will provide an additional layer of support for the most vulnerable in society.”