Coronavirus: 'Eight out of 10 firms to furlough staff over next week'

By John Campbell
BBC News NI Economics & Business Editor

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Almost 80% of businesses surveyed by the NI Chamber of Commerce plan to furlough some employees over the next week.

A furlough is a temporary lay-off, with the government paying 80% of salaries for three months.

Almost a third of firms surveyed said they intend to furlough all their employees.

The chamber surveyed 300 member firms between 1 and 3 April on the impact of coronavirus.

Cash flow is the biggest immediate issue with three quarters of firms surveyed reporting what the chamber described as "a serious decline in income over a very short time frame".

One in 10 businesses which responded to the survey have no cash reserves and a further 63% have less than three months cash reserves left.

Just 4% have more than 12 months cash reserves available.

Order books

Chamber chief executive Ann McGregor said these figures were "alarming".

"This cash flow issue is being exacerbated by slow or non-payments and difficulty accessing the various funds," she said.

"Even where there is some activity on order books, businesses are finding that customers are becoming increasingly reluctant to pay quickly, worsening the cash flow problem.

"Firms may be able to avail of rates relief and furlough staff but they can't survive without income and in this challenging time are anxious about increasing their debt."

The government has said the furlough scheme will be open to firms that cannot maintain their current workforce because operations have been severely affected by coronavirus.

It has not been prescriptive about what "severely affected" means but has said it "recognises different businesses will face different impacts from coronavirus".

On Wednesday, the chief executive of HMRC said they aimed to start making payments under the scheme by 30 April.

Jim Harra told MPs an online portal for applications should be operational by 20 April.

Mr Harra said the IT system behind the scheme was deployed at the weekend and was undergoing testing this morning with invited employers.

Meanwhile estimates for the UK as a whole suggest the scheme may cost £30-40bn over three months, three times the size of initial estimates.

That is according to analysis by the Resolution Foundation, using the latest figures on take-up of the scheme from the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC).

While initial Treasury estimates suggested a 10% take-up, fresh figures from the BCC suggest that far more firms are planning to use it.

It found nearly a fifth of smaller firms plan to furlough all their staff.

And 50% of companies are putting most of their staff into the scheme.

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