Coronavirus: Will some NI businesses fall through the cracks?

By John Campbell
BBC News NI Economics & Business Editor

  • Published
Forklift truck with bags of sugarImage source, Getty Images

The different parts of financial support packages for businesses are beginning to fit together.

Grants of £10,000 for small firms in Northern Ireland will start to be paid out next week.

A government backed loan scheme has begun and the chancellor has given more details about a jobs retention scheme.

The government will pay 80% of wages (up to a maximum of £2,500) for three months while employees are 'furloughed'.

The new details make it clear the scheme is open to all employers and covers all types of employment contracts.

But the chancellor is equally clear that not every business will get through this saying: "We will not be able to protect every single job or save every single business."

Some firms and their employers are concerned they could slip through the cracks or that the support is not quite what it seems.

The small manufacturer

The director of a small manufacturing company in the west of Northern Ireland has told BBC News NI he is finding it "impossible" to access the various funding schemes.

His first problem is that his bank, AIB, is not currently accredited for the loans scheme.

He contacted other businesses lenders, but without success.

One bank told him it was prioritising existing customers before speaking to any new borrowers.

AIB has now applied to participate in the scheme though it is not clear how long that will take.

Additionally, as a manufacturing firm, he will not benefit from the £10,000 grant scheme.

Those grants are being paid to businesses which qualify for small business rates relief.

But manufacturers in Northern Ireland are part of a different rates relief scheme and so do not qualify.

He has now furloughed his staff, but has no money to pay them until the retention scheme starts to pay out at the end of April.

"These workers, whom we have known for years, are at home with families and in some cases sick relatives with no income," he said.

"When they contact Universal Credit they are told they are not eligible.

"As responsible employers it is heart-breaking for us to leave our staff in this predicament."

The hospitality business

A director of this mid-Ulster business says that when the chancellor first announced the job retention package, it seemed like a neat solution.

"It was very much portrayed as the governments' support for all employees with 80% of your wage guaranteed and a 12-month interest-free bank loan for any business to help them pay the wages which could then be reclaimed," they said.

But when they spoke to their bank about accessing those interest free government-backed loans, it was a different story.

They were told if a bank could advance the funds ordinarily, they should do so and not use the scheme.

Image source, Getty Images

That was the correct advice. The British Business Bank which is administering the scheme said: "The lender has the authority to decide whether to offer you finance.

"If it can do so on normal commercial terms without having to make use of the scheme, it will."

They took the normal commercial loan and described their bank manager as "very supportive".

But it has now left them wary about how the jobs retention scheme will operate.

"A lot of businesses are in less stable position than as ourselves," they said.

"It cannot be emphasised strongly enough how important it is for HMRC to pay the claims promptly."

The manufacturing employee

Stephen (not his real name) works for a manufacturing company in mid Ulster.

Like his colleagues he has now been sent home with no prospect of pay until the job retention scheme starts to pay out.

His employer has been unable to secure a loan to pay wages in the interim.

He said he and his family will be able to survive on the 80% of salary, but that the wait for the money is causing huge anxiety: "There are a lot of sleepless nights."

He has spoken to his mortgage provider to arrange a "mortgage holiday".

But like other people taking this step, he has found that interest will continue to accrue which will make repayments higher in the future.