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Live Reporting

Robin Sheeran and Tori Watson

All times stated are UK

  1. Good evening

    Stormont

    That concludes today's business at the Northern Ireland Assembly.

    Join us again from 10:00 tomorrow morning when we'll be joining the Health Committee, which is due to receive a Covid-19 update from Public Health Agency officials.

    Then in the afternoon we'll join the Ad hoc Covid-10 Response Committee, which will be given a briefing by the ministers for infrastructure and education.

    Until then, enjoy the rest of this sunny Wednesday evening and stay safe and socially distanced.

  2. Meeting concludes

    NI Assembly

    Roy Beggs, the deputy speaker of the house, then brings the meeting to a close.

    He says tells members that the committee will sit again tomorrow and advises them to leave in a socially distanced manner through the nearest door.

  3. Social distancing in the workplace

    Clare Bailey of the Green Party asks the minister about workers in retail and postal jobs who have come to her in serious distress because they have been given no option but to continue working.

    She makes reference to workers being made to share uniforms and postal workers having to cope with large numbers of parcels.

    Diane Dodds

    The minister says Ms Bailey is "quite right" and that the workplaces should be safe.

    She says that some firms, such as those in the agri-food sector should be commended for the work they have done to ensure social distancing.

  4. 'One grant per business, irrespective of the outlets'

    Rosemary Barton

    The UUP's Rosemary Barton asks the minister how the grant schemes apply to a "business which pays rates on number of different properties - I think of a businesses run under one title but has properties in Enniskillen, Banbridge etc," she says.

    Diane Dodds says the "executive decided the small business grant scheme and £25,000 grant scheme would be one grant per business".

    She says she "recognises the difficulties that presents" adding, "when we see how the scheme works out, I would like to try some sort of a mop-up exercise for those difficult issues within the scheme".

    But, she says, "at the moment, the guidance is one grant per business, irrespective of the outlets those businesses have".

  5. 'Covid hairstyles are not the best we’ve ever had'

    Pam Cameron of the DUP asks the minister to comment "on harm to the economy from current social distancing rules, in particular those very personal roles, such as hairdressers," she says.

    The MLA adds she "declares an interest as someone who is growing, very rapidly, long grey hair". But on a serious note she says "these are people's livelihoods"

    The minister replies: "I too must declare an interest. Covid hairstyles are not the best we’ve ever had."

    Diane Dodds says there are some businesses which have "simply had to close" and adds "we need to work with them into the future to ensure they have the support they need".

    "Some of our local businesses will be able to avail of the furlough scheme," she says, and adds "I think helping them further via rates is one of the issues that will be so significant to them".

    Pam Cameron

    Sinn Féin's John O'Dowd opens his remarks by saying: "My advice is go grey gracefully."

    He then asks the minister if she will raise the issue with the British government around insurance for businesses as he says some insurers have said they will not pay out due to coronavirus.

    Mrs Dodds replies: "yes, is the short answer".

    "I too know businesses in my own area and across Northern Ireland who have paid for cover for these exact reasons and because Covid-19 is not named on the policy have been told they can't claim."

    "There has been a mixed message from the government in the past," she says.

  6. Brexit transition and food and medicine supplies.

    The SDLP's Matthew O'Toole refers to reports that nearly half of businesses are not trading at all at the moment.

    He asks the minister if she agrees with him that the UK government's current position that it will not seek an extension to the Brexit transition "is absurd if it wasn't immoral, given how much it risks vital supply chains of food and medicine at the end of this year".

    He adds that he apologises for even mentioning Brexit in the current circumstances.

    Matthew O'Toole

    The minister, a former MEP, says: "It's always nice to get to the subjects that we know."

    She says there are a number of views around seeking an extension - some people believe it would only "prolong the agony".

    She says that for now all the discussion is around dealing with Covid.

  7. Furloughed workers' maternity pay

    Mervyn Storey of the DUP asks the minister about coach companies, and makes particular reference to one in his own constituency which has "fallen between the 25 and the ten" grant scheme eligibility mark.

    The minister replies that she "can't give a specific guarantee on a specific example".

    But she says she will "look at businesses that have no route to specific help".

    "I understand the issue and I will hope to address some of those issues very much within the new scheme we will bring forward," she adds.

    Colm Gildernew

    Then Colm Gildernew of Sinn Féin asks the minister about maternity pay for those workers who have been furloughed.

    Mrs Dodds says Mr Gildernew's colleague has already "written to me on this issue" and says "it's an issue I recognise".

    She adds, "a scheme brought forward in haste, there will always be people who it doesn't quite fit with" and says she is looking into the matter.

  8. Social distancing and gas safety

    Pat Sheehan of Sinn Féin asks about firms that service gas boilers and have been unable to access premises due to concerns over social distancing.

    He's particularly concerned about the the rented and social housing sectors where landlords have a statutory obligation to carry out annual servicing.

    "Would the minister not consider a temporary short-term suspension of the annual checks?" he asks.

    Pat Sheehan

    The minister says she has taken advice from the Health and Safety Executive on this matter and they advise that gas boilers do need regular servicing - that there is an obligation to ensure that those boilers are serviced.

    Mrs Dodds says she is absolutely clear that the safety of people must be put first.

  9. 'There are not tens of thousands of applications outstanding'

    Alliance's Andrew Muir asks the minister "why is Northern Ireland, again, behind the curve in assisting businesses?"

    Diane Dodds replies referencing the £10,000 grant scheme.

    "You've indicated that many thousands of business still have not been paid," she says.

    "We indicated at the start of this there were a number of businesses we could pay directly," and says "those businesses have been paid".

    "We opened the web portal for the remaining businesses and those that have applied have been paid."

    Andrew Muir

    She says there have been some which are taking longer as mistakes were made in the application process.

    "There are not tens of thousands of applications outstanding," says Mrs Dodds.

    "On the £25,000 scheme, I've explained, this is a new scheme," she says, adding "it does require verification as you would expect - as soon as they are verified, those businesses will be paid".

  10. 'Need to do more to get money to companies'

    The UUP's John Stewart tells the minister "there are businesses out there who have days or weeks to go," adding, " we need to do more - we need to get money to these companies" he says.

    He also asks the minister if she will consider a scheme similar to the Welsh resilience fund.

    Diane Dodds replies "we have been concentrating on getting the grant packages out" and "helping companies with some of the difficulties they're having via the loan scheme and addressing issues to the two self employed and job retention scheme".

    But she adds, "we will be turning our mind to the issue of recovery".

    John Stewart

    She says the Welsh resilience fund provides "one model of how we can do that" adding that Invest NI has been tasked with looking at "schemes and measures we will need to help the NI economy in its recovery".

    "I will be going to the Northern Ireland Executive and asking for a considerable investment in Northern Ireland businesses and the Northern Ireland economy to help us recover," she says.

  11. 'Cash is king'

    Sinead McLaughlin of the SDLP says " all the schemes outlined by the minister have been welcomed by the business community - what is needed now is to get the money delivered as soon as possible because "cash is king" for those businesses.

    Sinead McLaughlin

    The minister says she is acutely aware of the need for cashflow.

  12. 'The path back to recovery'

    Gary Middleton of the DUP asks the minister about guidance for businesses in light of "extension of current restriction measures".

    Diane Dodds replies that there has been work done by the engagement forum, and she congratulates those in the forum for their work so far.

    She says it is made up of "trade unions and businesses who have come together to do important work".

    The minister says that a paper will go to the executive on Friday, to "update them and ask them to make decisions on the work of the engagement forum".

    Gary Middleton

    Mrs Dodds says it includes a code of practice, including safe working practices.

    "One of the things I talk about often," says the minister, "is the path back to recovery and the gentle steps we will have to take to ease ourselves back".

    She adds the believes "social distancing will be in place for a long time".

    The minister adds that the forum has "produced a further piece of work around essential and non-essential workers" which she will "present to the executive for them to take a view on" and which will be published shortly after.

  13. 'Anxiety and distress' over business grants

    Caoimhe Archibald of Sinn Féin chairs the assembly's Economy Committee.

    She asks the minister for some more information on a recently-announced £25,000 grant for businesses, and the potential for it to take three weeks to administer.

    The MLA says it has been causing "anxiety and distress".

    She also asks about support for students who do not study in Northern Ireland.

    Caoimhe Archibald

    The minister says the £25,000 grants are aimed at the retail, hospitality, tourism and leisure sectors.

    She says she had hoped the scheme would be live today, but it has been put back until 20 April to ensure the web portal is ready.

    Regarding the position of students who attend universities outside Northern Ireland who are still having to pay for accommodation, she says she is looking into the matter but suspects it will need to be dealt with by hardship schemes introduced by the individual universities.

  14. 'Safety of workers must remain a priority'

    Mrs Dodds touches upon the importance of air connectivity for Northern Ireland.

    She says her department has been working "with the UK's Department for Transport to provide support for Northern Ireland’s air connectivity during this crisis period".

    She says the "safety of workers must remain a priority - if people can work at home they should," adding that for those "who cannot, the environment should be safe and follow guidance".

    Mrs Dodds says that codes of practice will be brought to the executive on Friday.

    The minister adds that her department is also "helping people seeking alternative employment" and trying to fit their skills and experiences with "full-time, part-time and temporary roles".

    Diane Dodds

    Regarding further educational colleges, Mrs Dodds says "the stopping of face-to face teaching has had an impact on how vocational qualifications will be awarded" and says this is something her department is working on.

    She adds she is "aware the downturn in the hospitality sector will have an impact on students who work in that sector" and so she is seeking to "increase the student hardship fund" by double, and will discuss the move with the executive.

    "I cannot promise every job or business will be saved" says the minister, but she says she "will do all I can".

    "We will get through this," she says, "the measures we have put in place will put a basis from which businesses can build economic recovery".

  15. The Minister for the Ecomomy's statement

    Following a short break, Minister for the Economy Diane Dodds begins her statement.

    She says the health crisis has brought with it "an unprecedented economic crisis.

    Mrs Dodds says her role is to mitigate the worst effects on the NI economy "by protecting as many livelihoods as possible".

    "This is why we are working to distribute over £400m in support packages to businesses right across Northern Ireland."

    Diane Dodds

    "Let us be in no doubt about about the scale of this task," she says as Covid-19 has had a profound effect on worldwide economic activity - imports and exports have been disrupted, supply lines have been broken and international travel has almost ceased.

    The minister pays tribute to businesses and workers who contributed to the struggle against the pandemic.

    "We will be dealing with the economic aftershocks for a long time to come," she says.

    Turning to the steps taken by her department, the minister says: "The first payments under the small business grants scheme were made nine days after the original announcement."

    "Since then nearly 15,000 small businesses have received the £10,000 grants, totalling around £150m," she adds.

  16. 'How dare you accuse us of not caring'

    People Before Profit's Gerry Carroll asks the minister about those who have died having contracted Covid-19 in care homes, adding "we have to ask what message does it send out that the Health Department didn't add the number of people who died in care homes" to the list.

    Mr Swann replies: "I personally take great exception at what the member has accused me and my department of doing.

    "There are nights I don't sleep when I think about what we’re doing and what we have to do the next day.

    "How dare you accuse us of not caring."

    Gerry Caroll

    "I can assure you my department and my officials care as much about every citizen and individual as everyone else," adds Mr Swann.

    "Those individuals recorded by the PHA, they are members who have been tested and passed away in hospital," he says.

    In relation to NISRA statistics, he says these are collated from death certificates and says there has been a time delay and lag.

  17. Mental health and stress impact will be 'immense'

    Chris Lyttle

    Chris Lyttle of Alliance, asks the minister about those experiencing stress and anxiety and what measures are in place to help with mental health.

    Mr Swann says those in need of those services, "should look to the same place in respect of support in the National Health Service".

    He says those "support mechanisms should still be there for those who need it".

    The minister adds that "on the other side of this, and there will be another side to this, the level of mental health and stress on society and our health and social care workers will be immense".

    He says "they will need that support" adding, "we have to be there and provide it and support it".

  18. 'Front line staff still concerned about PPE'

    Sinn Féin's John O'Dowd says "the two self-appointed experts that most concern me in this entire debate are Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings".

    He says regarding PPE that "night after night" there are stories that front line staff are seriously concerned about the level of PPE they have.

    He wants the minister to redouble his efforts regarding PPE.

    John O'Dowd

    Mr Swann says the supply of PPE is a challenge worldwide.

    "What I don't want is it to be a challenge of what's sitting in a stockpile, sitting a warehouse and not getting to the person who needs it," he says.

  19. 'Attend appointments' if need to

    The UUP's Alan Chambers asks about the social media commentary which is being shared about Covid-19 and asks the minister if it is helpful. He also asks about what happens next.

    Mr Swann replies, that "some of the noise generated out there is not just not helpful, it is undermining to some of our key workers".

    He says it is also often "misguided".

    The minister says "in terms of the next phase" there is a working group being chaired by Northern Ireland's chief medical officer.

    He adds that "if any trial of medication or vaccine will be brought forward, Northern Ireland will be fully linked in to any UK wide approach".

    Gary Middleton

    Meanwhile Gary Middleton of the DUP asks the minister if "people within community who have serious conditions" should be "attending appointments".

    Mr Swann says people "must not put their health at risk" and ensure they "attend appointments".

    "I cannot stress that enough," he adds.

    "It's a message that must be reinforced. Those who need to go to GP should do so," says the minister.